Thanks to a historic collaboration between the Met and the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, an almost unbelievably rich trove of Hellenistic antiquities has come to New York.
The death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C. marks the moment when Greek culture jumped the borders of Greece and became a world culture. Alexander’s rapid conquests had pushed the borders of the Macedonian Empire as far east as what is now Afghanistan and Pakistan, and when he died without naming a successor, his generals fought each other for control. After several civil wars, the empire broke up into political units known as the Hellenistic kingdoms, which for the next three centuries ruled most of Greece, parts of Southern Italy, Asia Minor, Egypt, and the Near East. During that time, they made Greek an international language, and with the language went Greek art. The art of the so-called Hellenistic period (a modern coinage; it was never called that at the time) broke new ground in terms of realism, eroticism, and the development of new media.
One of those Hellenistic dynasties was the Attalid Kingdom, which ruled from the city of Pergamon near the west coast of what is now Turkey. Under Attalid and then (starting in 133 B.C.) Roman rule, Pergamon grew into a wealthy and cultured city, distinguished by its massive acropolis (hill city) bearing a monumental altar—the famous Great Altar—with elaborate friezes. In the mid-1860s, a German engineer and amateur archeologist, Carl Humann, stumbled on the site of ancient Pergamon while excavating for an Ottoman Turkish road construction project. Noticing that exposed portions of marble from the partially buried city were being cut into fragments to be burned in a lime kiln, Humann used his influence with the Ottoman authorities to stop the destruction and get a permit to excavate the site.
Actual digging, though, needed to wait until 1879, when Humann was able to get financial support from the Berlin Museums, a branch of the German royal state. Thus began the historic connection between the Hellenistic city and the German city, which eventually constructed an entire structure, the Pergamon Museum, to house its negotiated portion of artifacts from the site (the balance was claimed by the Ottoman government). To Berlin went the friezes from the Great Altar, which were touted as worthy rivals to the British Museum’s “Elgin Marbles” (sculptures from the frieze of the Parthenon in Athens) in the geopolitical game of archeological one-upmanship. Today, under the auspices of the Pergamon Museum, excavation of the site continues.
In 2013, the Pergamon Museum closed for major renovations, providing the occasion for pieces from the collection to travel to New York, where they are now on view at the Metropolitan Museum in “Pergamon and the Hellenistic Kingdoms of the Ancient World,” an exhibition on view through July 17. About a third of the 265 objects in the Met show are from the Pergamon Museum; the show also features loans from some 50 public and private collections from around the world. Together, the astonishing assemblage of objects showcases not only the achievement of Pergamon but of Hellenistic high culture in general, in many ancient states.
The Met’s chief curator of antiquities, Carlos Picón, describes the exhibition as “unabashedly an ‘objects show’” that “does not pretend to offer a straightforward art-historical survey.” In any case, he writes in the exhibition catalogue, “there is no single approach to the study of most branches of Hellenistic art. One can only examine the artistic trends and attempt to discover avenues that either lead to further study or, at the very least, allow us to look at this rich material with fresh eyes.”
For many visitors to the Met, “Pergamon and the Hellenistic Kingdoms of the Ancient World” will be their first look at the material, but even to those familiar with the period, the works on view are likely to be visually and even emotionally overwhelming. While the Great Altar itself cannot travel (since it is literally embedded in the walls of the Pergamon Museum itself), some elements from the friezes are in the New York show, along with a striking architectural model that conveys what the altar must have looked like when it was new. A huge 1882 pen-and-ink-and-watercolor rendering of the whole acropolis of Pergamon by Friedrich von Tiersch, situated near the entrance to the exhibition, also helps visualize the ancient site in its heyday. An assortment of documents and sketchbooks immerses the viewer in the thrill of the German discovery of Pergamon, when Humann was able to exult, “We have found an entire artistic epoch!”
From the north and east sides of the Sanctuary of Athena at Pergamon, a set of large marble balustrade reliefs, discovered in 1878–86, are in the exhibition. These very imposing and compositionally bold designs, made around 180 B.C., depict spoils of war—shields, a ship’s standard and rudder, a helmet with mask—that commemorate battles won by the kings of Pergamon against the Seleucids of Asia Minor. The haphazard, tumbled-looking arrangement of the trophies suggests a still life turned vertically, almost Cubistic in its overall effect. The dedication of such an important structure as this sanctuary to the goddess Athena reminds us that Pergamon, as a foreign city, had to a particular effort to tie itself to the sources of Greek religion and integrate itself into the mythology.
Actual arms and armor are on view right near the frieze fragments: A 32-inch-diameter bronze shield with relief decoration, discovered at Pontos in present-day Turkey, is one of the very few surviving Hellenistic pieces of its kind in the world. The Greek inscription running in a circle between two concentric decorative bands reads, “Of King Pharnakes,” referring to Pharnakes I, who ruled Pontos in the 2nd century B.C. The shield, which has a six-pointed star design in the middle, would originally have a wooden or leather support mounted behind the brass front.
Images of Alexander, the progenitor of the Hellenistic world, are appropriately displayed at the beginning of the Met’s installation. One particularly impressive piece—though small, about 20 inches high—is a bronze sculpture of the ruler mounted on his favorite horse, Bucephalos, who is rearing up as his rider, dressed in typical Macedonian style, prepares to strike a blow against an unseen enemy. The weapon he would have been using is also unseen, at least by us, because it has been lost to time. Alexander is shown with no helmet, an allusion to a famous incident in 334 B.C. when the king was attacked and nearly killed by the satrap (provincial governor) Spithridates during a battle. This sculpture, which was found at Herculaneum, is a late Republican or early Imperial Roman copy of a Greek original that is believed to have been created not very long after the event itself, circa 320–300 B.C.
Another object on view that is likely a portrait of Alexander, on a very different scale, is the fragmentary colossal marble head of a youth discovered at Pergamon. Probably carved in the 2nd century B.C., the head is twice life size (almost 23 inches high) and is believed to have been mounted on the wall in the Pergamon gymnasium. The expressive, slightly open mouth; the nose; and the curly locks of hair are all that remain to conjure the visage of the young king; the rest of the head has been dramatically sheared off, creating an unintentional but nonetheless beautiful and strange effect.
A Late Hellenistic bronze portrait of an unknown man, excavated on the Greek island of Delos in 1912, is vividly lifelike. Every feature seems like that of a real person, not an idealized archetype. The eyes, with the whites modeled in inlaid white stone and the irises in a dark gray stone, are particularly expressive, full of pathos or even anguish. The pupils, too, were once inlaid, and the eyelashes were rendered with fringed strips of copper, though those pieces, unfortunately, have been lost. This kind of intense dedication to naturalistic detail, coupled with a desire to convey the true personality and character of the sitter, is typical of Late Hellenistic portraiture. The man shown here may have been a public official, a man of letters, or some other prominent citizen, but what the artist gives us is not the public façade but the inner man.
Another trait of Hellenistic art is frank eroticism. A beautiful example in the Met show is Sleeping Hermaphrodite, a 2nd century A.D. Roman Imperial copy of a Greek original from 2nd century B.C. Asia Minor, found in Rome in the late 19th century during the construction of a theater. According to myth, Hermaphroditos, the son of Hermes and Aphrodite, rejected the advances of a nymph, who then appealed to the gods for assistance. They obliged by fusing her with her beloved forever, creating a bisexual being. In this marble depiction, the figure is sensuously abandoned to sleep, partially wrapped in a sheet, one leg crossed over the other, the face supported on the arms. Though still, it looks as if it might stir at any time. The body and face as we see them from the side to which the face is turned are more or less gender-neutral, though they skew feminine. But on the other side, the sculptor has depicted both a breast and a penis, graphic reminders of the androgynous nature of this hybrid entity.
Naturalistic painting was a signal achievement of Hellenistic art, though sadly, very few paintings have survived. Mosaic pictures, however, give some sense of what Hellenistic painting must have been like. A late Republican Roman emblema (inset illustration from a floor) from the 2nd–1st century B.C. and excavated at Pompeii, shows a group of busking musicians dedicated to the cult of the goddess Cybele. All three wear theatrical masks. One blows a double flute, one plays a large tambourine, and the third snaps a pair of small hand cymbals. Off to the side is a small figure that may be a child or a dwarf. The image, signed in Greek by the artist, Dioskourides of Samos, is most likely an illustration of a scene from Menander’s comedy The Possessed Girl, which is lost except for a few scattered verses. The composition is believed to be a copy of a painting from a century or two earlier. Even though it is mosaic, the colorful piece uses chiaroscuro and shows a command of three-dimensional space.
An especially impressive multi-figure composition can be seen carved in relief around the outside of a marble calyx krater, called the Borghese Krater. Even in a show consisting mainly of high spots, this one really stands out. Discovered in the Gardens of Sallust in Rome in 1569 and now in the Louvre, this gigantic, monumental vase was made in Greece around 40–30 B.C. Its frieze depicts a procession of Dionysos, god of wine and ecstasy—quite fitting, since the type of ceramic kraters on which this showpiece is modeled would have been used to dispense wine at a banquet. Running under the lip of the krater is a grape vine, also symbolizing Dionysos. The figures in the frieze are the god himself, depicted semi-nude, three maenads or female worshippers, and five fauns or satyrs, all dancing and playing musical instruments. One of the fauns seems to have had too much to drink and is being supported by another. Evidence from an ancient shipwreck discovered just before World War I indicates that this vase was made in Attica for export to a wealthy Roman client. Important contributions to the development of the so-called neo-Attic style of art were made in the city of Pergamon.
“Pergamon and the Hellenistic Kingdoms of the Ancient World” contains many examples of the decorative arts, including numismatics and jewelry. One of the most eye-catching pieces in that category is known as the Vienna Cameo. This large double portrait, made of 10-layered onyx, dates from the Early Hellenistic period in Ptolemaic Egypt, circa 278–270/269 B.C. It depicts the Pharaoh Ptolemy II Philadelphos and his sister-wife Arsinoe II (Philadelphos means “sibling-lover” in Greek), in profile. The white layers of the stone have been used for the faces—which, unsurprisingly, are exceptionally similar—while the brown layers have been used for the king’s helmet and crest and the surrounding negative space. The technique of cameo carving, shown here with such mastery, is an innovation of the Hellenistic period.
In Barry Unsworth’s 1988 novel Pascali’s Island, an English amateur archaeologist named Anthony Bowles makes a fantastic discovery on a Greek island, a Hellenistic bronze figure of a youth, possibly Dionysos, unseen for over 2,000 years. Like Carl Humann, Bowles has cultivated the local Ottoman authorities in order to get permission to dig—although things are about to get complicated for him. By way of explaining the sculpture’s particular beauty, Bowles says, “He is just at the point of decline. … At the brink. That is why he is so marvellous.” Immersion in “Pergamon and the Hellenistic Kingdoms of the Ancient World” will make it clear to anyone that there is nothing decadent about Hellenistic art, no need for invidious comparison with Classical art, and that its particular beauty is due both to advances in technique and to an increased desire to observe and depict the world as actually seen and lived.
By John Dorfman