Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking
In September of 198 3, an art dealer by the name of Gian-franco Becchina approached the J. Paul Getty Museum in California. He had in his possession, he said, a marble statue dating from the sixth century BC. It was what is known as a kouros — a sculpture of a nude male youth standing with his left leg forward and his arms at his sides. There are only about two hundred kouroi in existence, and most have been recovered badly damaged or in frag
ments from grave sites or archeological digs. But this one was almost perfectly preserved. It stood close to seven feet
tall. It had a kind of light-colored glow that set it apart from other ancient works. It was an extraordinary find.
Becchina’s asking price was just under $io million.
The Getty moved cautiously. It took the kouros on loan and began a thorough investigation. Was the statue consis
tent with other known kouroi? The answer appeared to be yes. The style of the sculpture seemed reminiscent of the Anavyssos kouros in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens, meaning that it seemed to fit with a particular time and place. Where and when had the statue been found? No one knew precisely, but Becchina gave the Getty’s legal department a sheaf of documents relating to its more recent history. The kouros, the records stated, had been in the private collection of a Swiss physician named Lauffenberger since the 1930s, and he in turn had acquired it from a well-known Greek art dealer named Roussos.
A geologist from the University of California named Stanley Margolis came to the museum and spent two days examining the surface of the statue with a high-resolution stereomicroscope. He then removed a core sample measuring one centimeter in diameter and two centimeters in length from just below the right knee and analyzed it using an electron microscope, electron microprobe, mass spectrometry, X-ray diffraction, and X-ray fluorescence. The statue was made of dolomite marble from the ancient Cape
Vathy quarry on the island of Thasos, Margolis concluded, and the surface of the statue was covered in a thin layer of calcite — which was significant, Margolis told the Getty, because dolomite can turn into calcite only over the course of hundreds, if not thousands, of years. In other words, the statue was old. It wasn’t some contemporary fake.
The Getty was satisfied. Fourteen months after their investigation of the kouros began, they agreed to buy the statue. In the fall of 1986, it went on display for the first time. The New York Times marked the occasion with a front-page story. A few months later, the Getty’s curator of antiquities, Marion True, wrote a long, glowing account of the museum’s acquisition for the art journal The Burlington Magazine. “Now standing erect without external support his closed hands fixed firmly to his thighs, the kouros expresses the confident vitality that is characteristic of the best of his brothers.” True concluded triumphantly, “God or
man, he embodies all the radiant energy of the adolescence of western art.”
The kouros, however, had a problem. It didn’t look right. The first to point this out was an Italian art historian named Federico Zeri, who served on the Getty’s board of trustees. When Zeri was taken down to the museum’s restoration studio to see the kouros in December of 198 3j he found himself staring at the sculpture’s fingernails. In a way he couldn’t immediately articulate, they seemed wrong to him. Evelyn Harrison was next. She was one of the world’s foremost experts on Greek sculpture, and she was in Los Angeles visiting the Getty just before the
museum finalized the deal with Becchina. “Arthur Hough-ton, who was then the curator, took us down to see it,”
Harrison remembers. “He just swished a cloth off the top of it and said, ‘Well, it isn’t ours yet, but it will be in a couple of weeks.’ And I said, ‘I’m sorry to hear that.”‘ What did Harrison see? She didn’t know. In that very first moment, when Houghton swished off the cloth, all Harri-
son had was a hunch, an instinctive sense that something was amiss. A few months later, Houghton took Thomas Hoving, the former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, down to the Getty’s conservation studio to see the statue as well. Hoving always makes a note of the first word that goes through his head when he sees something new, and he’ll never forget what that word was when he first saw the kouros. “It was ‘fresh’ — ‘fresh,”‘ Hoving recalls. And “fresh” was not the right reaction to have to a two-thousand-year-old statue. Later, thinking back on that moment, Hoving realized why that thought had popped into his mind: “I had dug in Sicily, where we found bits and pieces of these things. They just don’t come out looking like that. The kouros looked like it had been dipped in the very best caffe latte from Starbucks.”
Hoving turned to Houghton. “Have you paid for this?” Houghton, Hoving remembers, looked stunned.
“If you have, try to get your money back,” Hoving said. “If you haven’t, don’t.”
The Getty was getting worried, so they convened a special symposium on the kouros in Greece. They wrapped the statue up, shipped it to Athens, and invited the country’s most senior sculpture experts. This time the chorus of dismay was even louder.
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