Athena’s Magic

The Greek Miracle: Classical Sculpture from the Dawn of Democracy, The Fifth Century BC November 22, 1992–February 7, 1993; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York March 11–May 23, 1993

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

The Greek Miracle: Classical Sculpture from the Dawn of Democracy, The Fifth Century BC

catalog of the exhibition, edited by Diana Buitron-Oliver
National Gallery of Art/distributed by Abrams, 164 pp., $25.00 (paper)

The Ancient Americas: Art from Sacred Landscapes 1992–January 3, 1993

an exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago October 10,

The Ancient Americas: Art from Sacred Landscapes

catalog of the exhibition, edited by Richard F. Townsend
Te Neus/Prestel Verlag, 416 pp., $60.00

Talismans and Trojan Horses: Guardian Statues in Ancient Greek Myth and Ritual

by Christopher A. Faraone
Oxford University Press, 193 pp., $35.00

We are rightly advised not to look gift horses in the mouth. That principle is undeniable when the horse is a delicately paced little bronze horse from fifth-century Olympia, its mane ornately worked as becomes a victor, its bit and bridle intricately cast to show that it is the left trace-horse of a four-horse chariot team. This is the surviving part of a votive offering for winning the chariot race in the Olympic Games. It stands in the National Gallery’s new show (scheduled to come to the Metropolitan Museum in New York on March 11) next to a two-and-a-half-ton panel from the Parthenon frieze showing similarly perky horses being ridden in the Panathenaic festival. These Parthenon steeds look as if they have been shrunk to the demands of the frieze, and they are certainly too small in proportion to the riders; but the bronze horse, which reflects great anatomical study, proves that the physical structure of Greek horses was different from that of modern thoroughbreds. To our eyes they look more like ponies. This juxtaposition is an example of the care with which these Greek treasures have been chosen and arranged. These are gift horses, and any excuse for getting them here is worth endorsing.

Actually, the excuse is rather thin. For political reasons, to flatter the Greek government, the exhibit is tied to the 2,500th anniversary of the “birth of democracy” (dating that from the reforms of the Athenian statesman Kleisthenes begun in 508 BCE). The sculpture of the fifth century is presented (dubiously) as the product of democratization. A more plausible exhibit will be mounted by this show’s curator, Diana Buitron-Oliver, at the National Archives Building next summer, with objects directly reflecting democratic practices in ancient Athens. Meanwhile we have this, the more spectacular (though less appropriate) spectacle, to be grateful for.

Needless to say, the gift is not pure. The National Gallery and the Metropolitan had to put together a package of seventy-two paintings to ship off to Greece in return for the twenty-two objects Greece sent. (Twelve of the Greek sculptures came from museums in other European countries.) But who can quibble over terms when these treasures have been pried loose from the nervous custody of Greek officials, twenty of them for the first time? Some of the other countries that lent objects would not have let their monuments travel unless the Greeks had shown such willingness to cooperate. (Naturally, none of the Parthenon sculptures called “Elgin Marbles” could be shipped here from the British Museum, since the Greeks consider them stolen property.) A grant from the tobacco industry (Philip Morris Companies Inc.) completes the impurities necessary to pull off this “Greek Miracle.” Despite all that, it is miraculous.

Many of the objects are familiar to students of Greek art, who will have seen them in their home museums. It is still refreshing to find them in new collocations—e.g., the marble head of a warrior from Munich’s Antiquities Museum juxtaposed …

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.