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The Macedonian Connection

The Search For Alexander November 16, 1980 to April 5, 1981

an exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC,

The Search For Alexander: An Exhibition

with essays by Nikolaos Yalouris, by Manolis Andronikos, by Katerina Rhomiopoulou
New York Graphic Society, 192 pp., $10.95 (paper)

The Search for Alexander

by Robin Lane Fox
Little Brown, 451 pp., $24.95

I

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 is well captioned. But a four-star event “The Search for Alexander” is not.

There is thus a strong, for the most part justified, feeling that the advance fanfare has been out of all proportion. In particular, the exhibition’s title is widely, and rightly, felt to be as misleading as it is inappropriate. Whatever this show concentrates on discovering, it is not Alexander, whose relation to the exhibits is at best tangential, being expressed through the Macedonian heritage that he spent so much of his short life attempting to jettison in favor of more grandiose, Oriental concepts of kingship. Reliable insiders I spoke to suggested that the title originated with Time Inc. as a marketing device aimed at selling the show, a slogan that would appeal to the popular imagination, and easily transferable to other products, such as Robin Lane Fox’s book, the museum catalogue, and commercial reproductions—all three, as it happens, put out by Time Inc. subsidiaries. It becomes clear, on investigation, that the aims of the museum authorities, of Time Inc., of the archaeologists and historians, and (last but by no means least) of the Greek government, have not always coincided. Their stresses and divergences—the intersection of the timeless with Time—shed a fascinating light on that murky no-man’s-land where scholarship, politics, and corporate finance maneuver for advantage.

The genesis of the Alexander show goes back to 1966, when Zachary P. Morfogen, a Greek-American then working for the international division of Time-Life Books, discussed with his friend the Greek politician Takis Lambrias plans to promote a big book and perhaps a film or a TV program about Alexander.2 Thus both Time Inc. and the Greeks were involved, however fortuitously, ab initio. The scheme was shelved during the Colonels’ regime, but revived again in 1974, when Lambrias became Karamanlis’s minister for press, information, and television. At the same time both Carter Brown, director of the National Gallery in Washington, and Thomas Hoving, then director of the Metropolitan Museum, were exploring the possibility of mounting a loan exhibition from Greece. Brown discussed the problem with Nicholas Yalouris, then director of Greek antiquities, but ran into what seemed an insuperable obstacle: a Greek law prohibiting the export of museum antiquities, even on temporary loan. Despite strenuous efforts by Morfogen and Brown, the sympathy of Yalouris, and the fact that Karamanlis himself happened to be a Macedonian from Sérres, between 1974 and 1977 no real progress was made in breaking the deadlock. Some extra inducement, clearly, was needed at the Greek end.

Then, in November 1977, Manolis Andronikos attracted international attention with his extraordinary discovery of an unrifled royal Macedonian tomb in the great tumulus at Vergina. It was not only the splendid gold wreaths and ossuaries, the frescoes and the ceremonial armor, that caught the public imagination, but also Andronikos’s provisional identification of the burial as that of King Philip II, Alexander the Great’s scarcely less famous father. Better still, from the Greek viewpoint, an immense amount of political and nationalist capital could be made out of the find. Ever since the late nineteenth century the conflicting claims of Greeks, Bulgars, Serbs, Montenegrins, and Turks on the ill-defined region of Macedonia—so ethnically confused that it provided the French language with its word, macédoine, for a fruit salad3—had produced constant trouble of a more or less violent nature, culminating in the Balkan Wars of 1912 which terminated five centuries of Turkish rule.

After the Smyrna debacle of 1922 thousands of Greek refugees from Asia Minor were relocated in Macedonia: both Yalouris and Andronikos, it is worth noting, were thus uprooted as children, from Smyrna and Prusa respectively. For the Greeks, moreover, the recovery of Macedonia formed an essential step in the implementation of the “Great Idea,” that is, the gradual reabsorption of all territories that had formed part of the Byzantine Empire, including Constantinople itself. The Graeco-Turkish war of 1922 dealt a major blow to this dream. But the dream itself remained intact. Both before and during World War II the Greek Communist Party (KKE) incurred enormous hostility by dutifully backing the Cominform line advocating an autonomous Macedonia as part of a Balkan federation (though this, ironically enough, would have been to turn the clock back to the fourth century BC). Much Greek blood had been spilled for that territory; the very thought of ceding it was regarded as rankly unpatriotic.4

II

No Greek, however scholarly, could hope to remain altogether impervious—even if only subconsciously—to these potent political, ethnic, and emotional issues when considering the status of ancient Macedonia. Above all, there was, and still is, bound to be a strong predisposition, encouraged by some credulous but prima facie plausible ancient evidence, toward identifying Macedonia as far as possible with Greece, and not only on political grounds. Though the area contains most of Greece’s heavy industry, and some of her richest farm land, it has also retained its ancient reputation for a certain “un-Greekness,” a comparative lack of culture. It will follow that Philip and, above all, Alexander, royal Macedonians par excellence, must likewise be shown to have possessed the strongest possible Hellenic antecedents and connections—despite the fact that in their day the Greeks of the city-states regarded Macedonians as alien barbarians, who after Philip’s victory at Chaeronea (338) had imposed their detested rule on Greece by main force. Better to forget the reaction of the Athenian orator Demades, who on learning of Alexander’s death in Babylon exclaimed: “Alexander dead? Impossible: the whole world would stink of his corpse.”

Indeed, in Alexander’s case this problem is exacerbated by the fact that the world conqueror was virtually the only figure from antiquity to survive, however mythicized, in the folk-consciousness of medieval and modern Greece. As Professor Yalouris reminds us in the exhibition catalogue,5 Alexander “became the symbol that embodied the desire for a national uprising” immediately before the Greek War of Independence. Rhigas Pheraios, the revolutionary Greek poet later shot by the Turks, and a passionate promoter of the “Great Idea,” featured the bust of Alexander on the clandestine broadsheet that he circulated in 1797. Alexander, in Karamanlis’s own words, “has served, as no other man has done, the dreams of the nation as a symbol of indissoluble unity and continuity between ancient and modern Hellenism.” The notion of Alexander as a kind of patron saint for Greek freedom fighters may strike non-Greek historians as ironic, to say the least; but it remains true that with the discovery of the royal burial at Vergina, any scheme for the promotion of an international exhibition featuring Macedonia at once acquired political importance.

This fact was clearly not lost on the Greek government, in particular on Karamanlis himself, who at once made extensive public funds available for further excavation—the dig had hitherto been financed by the University of Thessalonike6—and thereafter took a continuing personal interest in the project. He gave a speech at the opening of the exhibition in Thessalonike (then entitled, rather more accurately, “Alexander the Great: History and Legend in Art”), during which, inter alia, he referred to Alexander as “the representative of all the Greeks” in whose person “a now mature Greek civilization found the suitable medium by which it could extend itself beyond the boundaries of the ancient Greek world.” Through Karamanlis’s energetic personal lobbying, the law banning the export of Greek antiquities was rescinded in 1978, thus opening the way for Time Inc., the National Gallery, the publicity firm of Ruder & Finn, and a number of Greek agencies, headed by the National Bank of Greece, to set up a deal that would, it was hoped, satisfy everyone.

In fact these volatile partners found it hard to combine, and the main victim, inevitably, was the exhibition itself. Despite a publicity handout stressing its support of the arts (“Time Incorporated believes that its business is the total society in which we live, and it recognizes man’s necessity to enrich the soul as well as the body,” etc.), it seems clear that Time Inc.’s main interest is by no means exclusively cultural. Early draft contracts caused a considerable outcry in the museum world, and though Time Inc. claims not to expect to make money on the final deal, it was originally accused in the press7 of “using museums as outlets for its own marketing projects.” It will still sell the museum catalogue and Robin Lane Fox’s biography: how the pie will be cut from the sale of the museum reproductions is not so clear. In any case, the mere fact of their sponsorship has provided Time Inc. is directors with some first-rate publicity. As far as the exhibition itself is concerned, what Time Inc. and Zachary Morfogen—now reported to be working on a musical called Alexander—are stressing is Alexander himself and the Alexander legend, an excellent formula for selling the package to Americans with only the haziest notions of, or interest in, Macedonia as such.

  1. 1

    See Deborah Trustman, “Museums and Hype: The Alexander Show,” Atlantic Monthly, December 1980, p. 73.

  2. 2

    Judith Weinraub, The Washington Star, November 13, 1980, pp. C-1, C-4; cf. J. Carter Brown in The Search For Alexander: An Exhibition, p. 6.

  3. 3

    C.M. Woodhouse, The Story of Modern Greece (London, 1968), pp. 184ff.

  4. 4

    Richard Clogg, A Short History of Modern Greece (Cambridge University Press, 1979), pp. 163-164.

  5. 5

    The Search For Alexander: An Exhibition, p. 20.

  6. 6

    M. Andronikos, The Royal Graves at Vergina (Athens, 1978), pp. 5-6, n.2,.

  7. 7

    Cf. Deborah Trustman, “Museums and Hype,” p. 73.

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