13 Jun 2016

Pergamon at the Met

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Portrait of a Man from Delos, Bronze, c. 100 B.C., National Archaeological Museum, Athens.

G.W. Bowersock (a leading authority on Hellenistic Art), in the New York Review of Books, recommends emulating Turgenev and taking in the Metropolitan Museum’s current Pergamon-Hellenistic Art exhibition.

In January 1880 the great Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev, author of Fathers and Sons and one of the most cosmopolitan Russian writers of the time, was visiting Berlin, when he paid a visit to the Altes Museum. What he saw there not only made a profound impression upon him personally but marked the beginning of a momentous transformation in European understanding of the art and culture of the ancient Mediterranean world. …

Visitors to the Metropolitan Museum’s current exhibition devoted to Pergamon and the Hellenistic kingdoms of antiquity can now recapture Turgenev’s excitement and exaltation, even though what is on display inevitably corresponds only in part to what he saw. Almost all the reliefs in 1880 had arrived in Berlin within the previous two years, after the opening of German excavations at the site in 1878. Over the decades that followed they were incorporated into a reconstruction of the Pergamon altar that has long been one of the glories of the Pergamon Museum in Berlin.

That museum is currently undergoing renovation, and this has allowed many of its objects, though obviously not the altar itself or most of the reliefs, to be lent to New York. The reliefs in New York are panels that show the birth and infancy of Heracles’ son Telephus, who was the mythical founder of the city. The Telephus reliefs come from the inner walls of the colonnade at the top of the altar, and so the Gigantomachy frieze has to be appreciated through photographs. But the curators of the exhibition have successfully combined the loans from Berlin with major pieces from many other collections so as to provide a wide-ranging exploration of the art and culture of the so-called Hellenistic world. This is the international milieu in which Pergamon shone brightly and to which Rome was much indebted.

Hellenistic culture is often misunderstood and confused with Hellenic (or Greek) culture. Yet it is very different, though related. It is a culture that derives from the conquests of Alexander the Great, who, under the inspiration of his teacher Aristotle, brought the legacy of classical Greece across Asia Minor, the Middle East, and India. The Metropolitan Museum has not only created a visual effect that would inspire a modern Turgenev, but it has given Hellenistic art, which lies between the art of classical Greece and that of Rome, the prominence it amply deserves.

Photos of Objects Being Exhibited

Exhibition catalog (cheaper at Amazon): Pergamon and the Hellenistic Kingdoms of the Ancient World


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