|Alexander the Great: Treasures from an Epic Era of Hellenism|
|A Special Exhibition Review by Stan Parchin|
Portrait of Alexander, 340-330 B.C.,
Pentalic marble, Height 0.35 m,
Acropolis Museum, Athens
About the show:
If one is to capture the essence of a given civilization, one goes directly to the sources. Somewhere along the way, misguided movie director Oliver Stone missed this lesson when filming his two-hour fifty-three-minute, tedious debacle called Alexander. It neatly followed Troy, this year's other cinematic assault on the intellectual senses better suited for the cutting room floor than a theater or DVD player near you.
With that in mind, the Onassis Cultural Foundation has taken the lead in rescuing us from "Lautrec" (too loose) theatrical interpretations of antiquity by mounting Alexander the Great: Treasures from an Epic Era of Hellenism. Truly a gem of a special exhibition that is unfortunately not traveling, it's displayed in the Foundation's jewel box of a gallery space north of St. Patrick's Cathedral in Manhattan. It features more than 200 artifacts and outstanding objets d'art, many recently excavated and exhibited publicly for the very first time.
The show has two major foci: the personality of Alexander the Great (r. 336-323 B.C.) and daily life in the Macedonian world.
Art of the Hellenistic period is characterized by highly expressive portraiture in various media. This is seen in several superb depictions of the youthful Alexander in the form of marble busts, bronze statuettes, coins and medals from the Acropolis in Athens, Pella, the ancient Macedonian capital and collections worldwide.
Among the show's highlights is a Marble Head of Alexander (Early Third Century B.C.). This graceful bust is characterized by curls of hair cascading around his young visage and a distinctive upward turn of the neck to the left-hand side. The portrait's slightly open lips accentuate the sculpture's sense of drama. In a radical departure from his predecessors, Alexander commissioned the sculptor Lysippos to render him as youthful. This contradicted the established canon of royal imagery wherein the ruler was depicted as an older, mature and decidedly bearded statesman.
The Statuette of Pan-Alexander (Early Third Century B.C.), mislabeled in the catalogue as bronze as opposed to marble, is a tour de force of sculpture from Alexander's time. Here he is depicted as a lithe Pan, the god with pointed ears, two small horns and a band-diadem connoting royalty. The design harkens back to the Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C. where Athenians believed that the mischievous Pan incited fear among the Persians in their successful war against them.
Macedonian coinage before Alexander's time generally showed images of deities or symbols of the state. Alexander sought to perpetuate his memory by emblazoning his image on the face of currency. The show briefly traces the development of numismatic portraiture before, during and after Alexander's reign with examples of traditional coinage, coins with the ruler's deified image and later ones minted with his successors' portraits.
Alexander's ambitious military campaigns united Greece's warring city-states. He conquered the cosmopolitan Persian Empire and expanded Greece's sphere of influence to the borders of India. Examples of Macedonian weaponry dating from the time of his father, Phillip II (r. 359-336 B.C.), are also displayed in the show. Part of a Macedonian Shield (Early Third Century B.C.) in bronze, decorated with the royal twelve-point sun, is cleverly complemented diagonally by two pieces of a sarissa (the legendary five-meter long spear which was one of King Phillip's military innovations). Alexander and his father are credited with developing the phalanx formation in military campaigns. This involved closely knit groups of infantrymen advancing with overlapping shields and sarissa of different lengths.
The exhibition's second emphasis is the everyday life of men and women during this period. Pivotal to the social life of Ancient Greece were symposia, meetings for drinking and lively intellectual exchange. Silver and bronze tableware used at such animated gatherings, many fabled for Alexander's participation in them, is displayed.
These objects are accompanied by intricate gold jewelry and accessories worn by Macedonian women. Together they illustrate the rich cultural milieu in which Alexander and his people lived. Delicate masterpieces of Macedonian jewelry on view include earrings, necklaces, bracelets, diadems and headbands. These objects served religious and funerary purposes in Ancient Greek society.
When The Search for Alexander special exhibition graced our shores more than two decades ago, visitors were treated to marvelous treasures from the tomb of Phillip II. Many pieces from the previous show have returned to New York. They are not to be missed. The current show, curated impeccably by Dimitris Pandermalis, professor of Archaeology at the University of Thessaloniki and a renowned expert on Alexander the Great, concludes with recently discovered artifacts from a deceased alleged "queen's" tomb in Vergina. Known as the Lady of Aigia, her reassembled Costume (ca. 500 B.C.) includes golden fibulae (brooches), matching gold jewelry, ribbons and dress ornaments from her grave. Gorgeously displayed, they describe the lavish lifestyle of Macedonian noblewomen. These decorative accessories predate Alexander's age of opulence and empire by some 150 years.
Museums in Europe and the United States contributed to this dazzling display of Macedonian masterworks. Among them are: the Acropolis Museum in Athens; Museum at the Royal Tombs of Aigai (Vergina); Pella Archaeological Museum; the National Archaeological Museum of Naples, Italy; the Bibliothèque Nationale de France; The American Numismatic Society, New York; Brooklyn Museum; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Princeton University Art Museum, New Jersey; and The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore.
About the catalogue:
The show's 152-page, color paperback edition of the catalogue is free-of-charge at its entrance, as are the two posters. Although slightly flawed, the book is a remarkable record of a truly memorable show. Well-written essays describe: Alexander in portraiture; arms and warfare; the symposium; and tomb findings from the Lady of Aigai.
For further reading:
The Search for Alexander (exh. cat.).
New York: New York Graphic Society, 1982.
Pergamon:The Telephos Frieze from the Great Altar (exh. cat.).
San Francisco, CA: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 1996.
"Alexander the Great: Treasures from an Epic Era of Hellenism" is on view from December 10, 2004 to April 16, 2005. Open to the public Monday to Saturday from 10:00 AM to 6:00 PM, the Onassis Cultural Foundation is located in Olympic Tower, 645 Fifth Avenue (entrance on East 51 Street), New York, NY 10022 (Telephone: 212-486-4448; Website: www.onassis.org). Admission is free. Guided tours for groups of 20 or more and lectures are available.
From your Guide: Stan Parchin, Senior Correspondent for Museums and Special Exhibitions, is a specialist in ancient, late-medieval and Renaissance art and history. His interests include: the art and culture of Old and New Kingdom Egypt; the Italian and Northern Renaissances; Church history; and witchcraft, heresy and social dissent in late-medieval and early Modern Europe.
See all Special Exhibition and Catalogue Reviews from Stan Parchin.