The Search For Alexander November 16, 1980 to April 5, 1981
The Search For Alexander: An Exhibition
The Search for Alexander
After Tutankhamun, Alexander. With an explosion of publicity, yet another spectacular venture in museum promotion has been launched: how fitting that Time Inc. and the National Bank of Greece, co-sponsors of this new exhibition, should have patented as its trade mark the royal Macedonian starburst. “The Search for Alexander” has arrived at the National Gallery of Art in Washington—en route for Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, and New York—regally packaged and presented.
There were black-tie celebrity dinners, with politicians, archaeologists, art collectors, historians, and diplomats thrown into rather uneasy proximity. A two-day academic symposium was held in conjunction with the opening of the exhibition, on the theme “Art and Architecture in the late Fourth Century and Hellenistic Period in Macedonia and the Rest of Greece” (those last six words, as we shall see, are politically loaded). A series of Sunday lectures was inaugurated by Professor Manolis Andronikos, speaking about his now famous discoveries in the royal burial ground at Vergina (ancient Aegae), complete with new slides of low-relief miniature ivory sculptures and a superbly restored ceremonial shield. Special films are scheduled on the Vergina finds, on Alexander’s life, on Greek art and architecture, and on ancient Greek history. (A popular biography by Robin Lane Fox, also entitled The Search for Alexander, has been produced to coincide with the exhibition.) The usual museum reproductions, from Hellenistic costume jewelry to plaster busts of Alexander, are going to make someone a fortune.
When the exhibition was in its formative planning stage, between 1977 and 1978, huge crowds were flocking to one American museum after another, mesmerized by the fabulous gold of Egypt, pouring cash into the coffers of backers and subsidiaries, to make the Tutankhamun show the greatest blockbuster on record.1 It was inevitable that so heady a phenomenon should arouse extravagant hopes and ambitions in the group responsible for the Alexander project. Yet the plain truth of the matter is that, even weighing in the unique gold larnax (ossuary) and wreath from Vergina, this new exhibition simply isn’t in the same league as its Egyptian predecessor. It neither stuns nor, except for brief moments, dazzles. It contains some exquisite items—silver and bronze vessels, a spray of three golden wheat-ears, a double-snake bracelet—together with one of the most fussy and vulgar artifacts, not even eclipsed by the Portland Vase, to survive from antiquity: the great bronze krater (mixing vessel for wine and water) found at Derveni, its lush Dionysiac figures no advertisement for Macedonian quiet good taste.
This is essentially a small, low-key exhibition, admirably designed for teaching, of fine metalwork, jewelry, coins, and figurines from fourth-century and Hellenistic Macedonia, reinforced by one or two grave reliefs and an assortment of well-known marble heads of Alexander, including the Azara herm. It also comes equipped with an audiovisual show that sketches a colorful montage of Alexander-influenced art through the ages. (“There was a horse called Bucephalas,” the voice-over intones as the credits roll.) With certain exceptions, to which I shall return later, it…
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