Met opens “Pergamon,” unprecedented Hellenistic show

“Small Statue of Alexander the Great astride Bucephalos,” Roman, late Republican or early Imperial period, second half of the 1st century B.C.; copy of a Greek original from circa 320-300 B.C., bronze, Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples. Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

“So,” a publicist at The Metropolitan Museum of Art asked teasingly, “are there enough Alexanders for you?”

She knows me only too well. Lover of the ancient Greeks that I am, there can never be for me enough images of Alexander the Great – the Greco-Macedonian king whose conquest of the Persian Empire in 331 B.C. ushered in 300 years of Hellenism (Greek culture) in Asia, reversing the course of cultural influence from East-West to West-East, and underscoring a tension between East and West that is still with us.

And yet, there I was in the first gallery of “Pergamon and the Hellenistic Kingdoms of the Ancient World” (April 18 through July 17), surrounded by Alexanders. There was the Alexander of tender youth with his companion, Hephaestion, side by side in marble busts. Coins of Alexander, the ruler oft-imitated by Hellenistic successors like Mithridates VI. Bronzes of Alexander the hunter and the warrior on his rearing steed, Bucephalos, whom he legendarily tamed as a 13-year-old. And Alexander the conqueror emblazoned across a wall that reproduced the savage pageantry that is the “Alexander Mosaic.”

I was a kid in a classical candy store. And I was not alone in my giddy delight. “This is an amazing show, and we’re only in the second room,” I overheard one woman say to another at the press preview. “Unprecedented” is a word that is often bandied about in the art world. But I can say after 35 years of seeing exhibits professionally that “Pergamon” – featuring 265 objects in marble, bronze, terra-cotta, gold, glass, metal and coin – is the culmination of my exhibition dreams. The depth and breadth of the show, and its accompanying catalog, are astonishing. All the big themes are here – the uneven quest for charismatic Alexandrian leadership by the successors and the Romans; the cultural and commercial cross-pollination that is often the unwitting benefit of war; the “Raiders of the Lost Ark” derring-do of archaeological adventure; and the antipathy between the luxurious Hellenistic East, as seen in the ill-fated Mark Antony and Cleopatra, and the more austere Rome, exemplified by the Emperor Augustus, who sought to emulate the Greece of the earlier, classical period.

“Do you think she was beautiful?” I asked a woman as we gazed at a bust of Cleopatra, who looked less like Elizabeth Taylor and more like the proper Macedonian matron she was.

After a long pause, she said, “Yes.”

The loans are impressive and not just the approximately one-third from the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, which is closed for renovation and named for the ancient city in Asia Minor (now Bergama, Turkey) that the Germans excavated. There’s the 13-foot, newly restored Athena Parthenos from what once was the Sanctuary of Athena in Pergamon and which is one-third the size of the famed Pheidias sculpture of the goddess that stood in the Parthenon atop the Acropolis in Athens. There’s the sensuous, sensual “Sleeping Hermaphrodite,” which speaks most poignantly to a time grappling with transgendered issues.

Indeed, the whole show speaks to our age, in which Hellenistic works are being destroyed wholesale in parts of Syria and Iraq, where Alexander the conqueror once strode.

Yet the ancient Greeks and Alexander are part of the backbone of Western civilization. And when they’re presented – particularly in an exhibit of this magnitude – attention must be paid.

For more, visit metmuseum.org. For more of my modern musings on the ancient Greeks, check out my blog at thegamesmenplay.com. And for more of my “Greek Odyssey,” look for WAG’s June “Celebrating the Globe” issue. – Georgette Gouveia

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