According to Lysippos, if Polykleitos depicted men as they were, then he himself depicted men as they appeared to the eye. Like Polykleitos, Lysippos was from Sikyon and worked only with bronze, allegedly casting over fifteen hundred statues. He distinguished himself from his predecessors and contemporaries with his philosophy of creating art based on what he saw, refusing to admit he ever had a teacher other than nature itself. He became the court sculptor for Alexander the Great and was granted the sole right of depicting the ruler. Lysippos’ great contributions arose from his independent spirit, which motivated him to introduce changes that heralded the art of the Hellenistic Period.
The Apoxyomenos depicts a young male who has just finished exercising and has cleaned himself off with olive oil. He is scraping the excess oil from his outstretched arm with a curved metal scraper, called a strigil* (now missing). Although this depicts the traditional subject of the nude athlete, Lysippos introduces two innovations. First, he establishes a new rule of proportions that differs from the Polykleitan canon: the body of the athlete is slender with longer limbs, the torso is shorter, and the head is only a tenth of the height of the body (heads were an eighth of the height of the body in the Polykleitan system). Second, this sculpture is truly three-dimensional. The right arm extends directly out toward the viewer and protrudes daringly into the viewing plane. The audience cannot fully appreciate the work from the front, but must circle the piece, viewing it from several angles. This creates a physical interaction between viewer and image, which influenced the psychological aspects of Hellenistic sculpture.
The Apoxyomenos stands in a similar stance to the Doryphoros, with the weight resting naturalistically on one leg. But instead of the sectioned and closed forms of the Doryphoros’ body, Lysippos unifies the body of the Apoxyomenos by allowing the sections of the body to flow into one another. An absence of hard lines and overemphasized musculature yields a more naturalistic image. Increased naturalism is further achieved through the portrait-like face and the tousled hair.
Lysippos’ original bronze statue survives today only in marble copies, of which the most famous is in the Vatican Museum. The Apoxyomenos captivated the Roman emperor Tiberius, and the author Pliny noted it several times. More importantly, it motivated a departure from the style of Polykleitos and formed a transition to the active, psychological aspects of the sculpture of the Hellenistic Period.
*An original bronze strigil is on display in the Roman exhibit in the Weinberg Gallery of Ancient Art (second floor).