“This is not just a spiffing up of the galleries,” said Philippe de Montebello as he showed me around the renovated classical Greek section of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. De Montebello, the director of the Met, was about to leave for Athens, where he would describe the new Greek exhibit to the Ministry of Culture and invite the prime minister to attend the opening on April 20. “This is a way of rethinking the entire Greek heritage,” he continued. “It amounts to the appearance of a whole new museum in New York.” The refurbishing of the galleries that contain the Met’s classical collection is a major phase in the museum’s re-presentation of Western antiquity (from the prehistoric through the Hellenistic and Roman eras). In the spacious new arrangements of vitrines and pedestals and wall cases, the objects are mounted, lit, labeled in such a way that artifact speaks to artifact, each work explaining and explained by its neighbors—in terms of time, style, subject matter, culture, region, medium.
Those familiar with large collections of Greek vases—in Athens, say, or Boston—know how hard it is to maintain an alert attention to rows upon rows of pots (whether arranged in terms of shape, painter, or period). The new cases at the Met, says the classical art curator Carlos Picón, try to highlight a “star” of each space, with ancillary objects resonating to some aspect of its importance. Sporting artifacts may surround a vase with a scene of the games, or religious ones a scene of sacrifice. A case of small sculptures is unified by its reflection of Parthenon style. One case contains artifacts related to the theater, including a flask in the form of a bird-man which, by date, looks like a deliberate reference to the chorus figures in Aristophanes’ The Birds. It is the equivalent of Batman mugs given out at fast-food chains after the movie has appeared.
The paradox of the “new” galleries is that their greatest feature may be their oldest—what de Montebello calls “a great leap backwards.” This space was envisaged, near the beginning of this century, in a form that is only now being realized. The spine of the galleries is a long barrel-vaulted and skylighted space that was conceived by Edward Robinson, the first director of the Met who was also a classicist. He wanted to arrange all the classical antiquities in one area, laid out in chronological order, in and alongside the barrel-vaulted hall, to which a Roman-style atrium was added in 1926 for the display of Roman art. Before the first plan could be completed it was being subverted. The outbreak of the First World War prevented shipment of the limestone casing of the great gallery’s walls (they were painted to imitate stone). The chronological sequence of the exhibits was disrupted by the shifting of objects in and out of the galleries. Second World War air-raid rules sealed over the skylights in the barrel vault. The postwar crush of visitors led to conversion of the Roman atrium into the current cafeteria. The barrel-vaulted hall became a dingy corridor, where one rushed past jumbled rows of Cypriot and Roman statues toward the clatter of silverware and coffee cups. A mezzanine was built around the cafeteria space to contain the directors’ offices. “We are going to be evicted at the next stage of the renovation,” de Montebello says with satisfaction.
The long gallery at last looks like what Robinson had in mind—a promenade in the great baths of Rome. Its skylights are reopened. Its coffered ceiling has been completely re-created (the old coffers were decayed beyond restoration). The limestone is finally on the walls. Pedestals specially quarried near Viterbo for their green-gray glow hold statues placed at pleasing intervals down the center and along the sides of the room. The colors of the works and of the room richly complement each other in the illumination from above.
In an important way, this hall surpasses its original plan. Four new portals have been opened on the side walls, subordinated to the two great ones that were originally placed there. This allows a viewer to crisscross the central spine, working one’s way down the chronologically ordered three galleries on either side of the great hall. The sequence is easily ordered in one’s mind: the first pair of galleries is devoted to the sixth century BCE, the second pair to the fifth, the third pair to the fourth. As one goes back and forth through the great hall, the large statues in that sector of the hall date from the century celebrated on either side of it.
De Montebello begins the tour on the east side of the complex, where the large windows opening on Fifth Avenue give the three sculpture galleries on this side a flood of natural light. Pointing to the row of buildings across Fifth Avenue visible through the windows, de Montebello says, “This is an urban museum,” with the ancient and modern worlds in a kind of dialogue under the same light. This first gallery has the Metropolitan Kouros at its center, a pivot of the room, where archaic style is becoming classical, the frontal male moving forward, his knees with neatly bunched muscles above them. Two funeral steles, one complete, one a substantial fragment, are on the wall beyond the Kouros. The complete one is fourteen feet tall, and the dead athlete on its relief shows traces of the paint that colored most classical marbles (even the Kouros has polychrome traces). The sphinx high on the top of the monument is a plaster cast—the original is shown on a pedestal below, where the tints on it can be inspected up close. This whole exhibit stresses the ancient Greeks’ vivid sense of color, combating the vulgar concep-tion of a classical “purity” worked out in white marble and black bronze. Bronzes, too, were colored (with copper highlighting, painted accessories, and naturalistic eyes). The stele fragment in this room is a particularly delicate example of early polychromy. Its relief figure is a charioteer, and the legs of the farther horse are distinguished from those of the nearer horse, in this shallowly incised carving, by color. Picón, tracing the amazingly sharp lines of the carving, says, “This is as good as the sixth century gets.” De Montebello, pointing to another statue, says, “Touch it—you won’t be able to when the exhibit opens.”
Though the three galleries on the east of the great hall are mainly devoted to sculpture of the appropriate centuries, vitrines and cases show smaller works of the period. In this room a spectacular example of sixth-century humor is shown on a kylix (a broad but shallow cup on a pedestal) by the Amasis Painter. The painted scene shows men tending horses in a stable. We know that it represents an interior scene because the horses stand under the painted frieze of a building, with the open spaces, or metopes, in the frieze containing “carved” figures of birds and animals. At the end of the frieze, the last metope contains an archer whose drawn bow has so frightened the animal in an adjoining “window” that it has come to life and is jumping out of the metope, right off the front of the fictive building.
By crossing over to the sixth-century gallery on the west side, we come to a room without natural light, but whose smaller artifacts are individually mounted and lit for maximum legibility. Particularly striking in the room is a pair of huge kraters (wine-mixing bowls), of which the finer exists only in large shards mounted above a drawing that gives its entire scheme. The vase’s red figures show Dionysos taking Hephaistos back to Olympus (after an angry Zeus threw him down from the mountain). Under the donkey of Dionysos, a satyr is drunkenly sprawled (his nickname is printed beside him, the Greek equivalent of “What, Me Worry?”: Ouk alegoåøn). Though unconscious, the satyr is ithyphallic—his own penis curves in choreographic dialogue up toward the ass’s large appendage, completing the swirl of inebriate joy that runs its circuit from gods through humans and half-humans to the animal world. This room also contains ancient armor, as well as the transition that occurred in this period from black-figure vase painting (with work by one of its masters, Exekias) to red-figure painting. The purported inventor of the new technique, Andokides, is represented here by an amphora, a jar with a special white-ground lip.
The Exekias amphora is particularly lovely, with a processional (marriage?) chariot on either side. One is a three-horse chariot (the middle horse white), and it is escorted by a kitharist (lute player) in full song. (See illustration on page 40.) The other is a two-horse chariot hailed by a white-bearded old man (father of the bride?). Both chariots hold a handsome young couple, and it comes as a surprise that the woman holds the reins and guides the horses.
Instead of going back into the main hall, a visitor would do better to enter the next western gallery through a connecting door. We progress boustrophedon, as the Greeks would say, in plow-pattern “ox turns,” out one furrow and back along a parallel one. Entering the middle gallery on this western side, we are in the fifth century. An important vase is the so-called “million-dollar pot,” the calyx krater by Euphronios for whose purchase former director Thomas Hoving was roundly criticized. Some thought its source suspect and its price extravagant.1 And there is irony in the placement, nearby in this room, of fifth-century coins on loan from the American Numismatic Society, since Hoving was able to pay a million dollars for the Euphronios vase because he sold the Met’s Greek coin collection. The loans used to run the other way, toward and not from the Numismatic Society. In any event, the coins on loan are handsomely displayed, with clarifying rather than confusing information on a large chart beside them, and the Euphronios painting on the krater—of the fallen warrior Sarpedon being tenderly cared for by Sleep and Death—is powerful in its restraint.
Of the vases in this room, some will prefer the popular Berlin Painter’s large amphora with only two figures, one on each side, limned dreamlike against a rich black background. On the reverse side of the amphora is a music-contest judge, who extends an assessing hand. On the obverse is a kitharist rapt in song, his garments swaying as he moves to the music, the scarf on his instrument doing a little dance of its own. On one side control, on the other side ecstasy, a union of music’s antithetical strengths.
This exhibit’s way of putting objects in dialogue with each other is apparent, on the far wall of this room, in a white-ground kylix by the Villa Giulia Painter showing a woman pouring a libation from an offering-saucer (phiale). Beside it is an actual silver phiale from the same period as the vase.
Crossing the main hall in this middle row of galleries we go around the large central statue of the hall, a marble Roman copy of a Greek bronze of the fifth century, which shows an armed warrior stepping daintily, as in a dance, down to some lower ground. It is Protesilaos, the first warrior to set foot on Trojan soil as the Greek invaders’ fleet began its ten years’ war. This is, to Greek mythology, what Neil Armstrong’s step onto the moon was—a tentative contact with a whole new part of history. But the Greeks would have known from their Homer (Iliad 2.701-702) that Protesilaos was felled at once by an enemy spear, all that muscular gracefulness obliterated, a moment after the movement the sculptor has fixed in a freeze frame of destiny.
The two portals at this central crossing are guarded, in the galleries on either side, by herms—the Hermes-headed pillars that stood at Athenian limina. A crouching lion faces us as we go into the gallery that contains the Met’s great collection of stone funeral reliefs—the mourning young Parian girl with her pet doves; the young woman (a bride?) who leans on a pillar as if tired by the life she is leaving; the whole family that communes with one another’s sorrow, not needing words or glances for the task. The most delicate item in the whole collection—put here near the funeral reliefs—may be the translucent shell, carved of marble, for pouring a burial libation. This one was clearly thrown into the grave immediately after it had performed its service, which explains the preservation of such a fragile object.
Going into the last of the galleries on the east, we find fourth-century objects—mainly of luxury—that show the taste for silver and gold, along with glass that has Tiffany’s intensity of hue in natural-abstract patterns (like the little jar with peacock-tail lines). This room also contains the larger-than-life-size eyes—carefully created with iris and pupil and ringed with metal eyelashes—from a lost bronze statue.
A last trip across the central hall takes us into the final gallery on the west. Though this is a fourth-century room, the richness of the fifth century spills over into it as well, in the case of small statues which reflect the themes and techniques of the Parthenon frieze. Another fifth-century artifact, by the Achilles Painter, shows a motif that would be common in the Middle Ages—a winged soul departing from the body of a dying man, in the form of a miniature replica of himself. The fourth century saw the rise of Macedonian power in and beyond Greece, so Macedonian bronze and glass and gold are important here. There is also a chorus line, dancing in slow tempo, of Tanagra figures, those terra-cotta charmers who flirt with fan and thin veils.
When the next stage of the Met’s reconstruction is completed, we shall be able to continue the tour, leaving the classical period and viewing works from the Hellenistic age—ending up at the original Roman atrium, divested of its culinary intrusions. From the prehistoric items in the entryway (propylaia), through this new classical section, to the Hellenistic-Roman conclusion, the sweep of classical history as seen through art will be completed.
The combination of the aesthetic with the historical, the pleasing with the didactic, will come close to achieving the ideal of what a classical collection might be, and it may seem curmudgeonly to ask for more. But the complex is being described as a rethinking of the past, as well as a presentation of it, and what seems missing is any deep reassessment of what the Greeks mean to us. There are exhibit clusters devoted to important matters—war, sports, religion, myth, the symposion (or formal drinking party), and politics. But matters that have for years been important to Greek studies and are hotly debated at the moment have not been directly engaged. Slavery, for instance. We are acutely aware, as some former ages were not, of the economic base from which the Greeks aspired upward, and of the slaves who worked in the shops that turned out these masterpieces.
The role of women, too, is glanced at rather than gazed at. There are vases that depict the marriage ceremony, or women working wool; but that hardly covers the matter. It would be interesting to use the Exekias vase to speak of a woman at the reins of a chariot. There is a vitrine devoted to the symposion; but one would never guess from it the importance of the hetaira (courtesan) to that aspect of Greek culture. James Davidson has recently proved how important the hetaira is for assessing the whole sexual situation in Athens.2 Greek pederasty is also neglected, despite its centrality to modern debates on the history and importance of homosexuality in ancient Greece. The rape of the Trojan youth Ganymede by Jupiter is shown on a Macedonian set of earrings, and a vase shows Ganymede as cup bearer, but they hardly launch a discussion of the subject.
When I brought up these omissions with Carlos Picón, he said that the limits of the collection had to be considered. “I would have loved to have a sex [display] case,” he said (which is not quite what I meant). He said that there were nude women on some of the vases, that slaves were mainly attendants on freemen and hard to show by themselves, and that homosexuality was implied in some scenes. It would, indeed, have taken some creative imagination to present these matters more directly—the kind, for instance, that went into deploying exiguous material to make an interesting collection of things bearing on political democracy, such as one of the bronze identification plaques used to select citizens randomly for jury duty and the marble head of a tyrannicide. The limits were not so much on the material as on the conception of what is relevant. The Greece of this collection is the “timeless” Greece that Edward Robinson would recognize could he revisit his spaces, not a single subject or interpretation radically disturbed. The museum, of course, could answer (and implicitly did) that it is not its job to be “trendy,” but to preserve the past “objectively” (as if that were possible). What is being preserved, along with the priceless objects themselves, is the late-Victorian cultural evaluation that led to their collecting here. This classical museum is also a museum to a far more recent past.
Another question is unavoidable in a postcolonial era: What are these Greek works doing in New York? Are they just the booty of a Western culture that picked up items of appeal during its time of dominance? Do they live, like the Elgin Marbles in London, under a taint of illegitimate possession? Philippe de Montebello is a bit impatient with such questions, and like many impatient people he blames the press for continually raising it: “The way most reporters will approach the matter is, ‘You’re guilty. Give it back!”‘ Actually, the director has thoughtful and convincing answers to most questions of provenance, but he does not think he should be required to keep giving them. When I brought the subject up during our tour of the galleries, he said it was too complex a matter to be discussed on the run. If I wanted to set a date after his return from Greece, we could sit down and talk about it carefully.
When I later met him in his office he laid out his position. Obviously, he said, the search for, acquisition, and transfer of articles is now, and should be, under the control of the countries where those articles are found or legitimately possessed. But a kind of retrospective shipping of everything back to its place of manufacture is an affront to intermediate ownership rights. When the horses of San Marco were taken to Paris as the booty of conquest, France rightly sent them back after Napoleon’s fall. But should Venice, in turn, have shipped them off to Turkey, since they were originally taken from Constantinople, as booty, in 1204? Is modern Turkey even the same entity as the Byzantine power that was defeated in the thirteenth century? Boundaries have changed, governments have changed, concepts of international law have changed. A great mass of the Greek vases around the world came from Southern Italy, and had been created for export there. Should they all be shipped back to Sicily and Campania?
De Montebello’s press representative, who accompanied him to Athens to promote the new galleries, told me the director was applauded there when he made a statement of the sort he repeated for me: “It happens that, although I’ve traveled intensively in my life, and grew up in Europe, Greece is a country I visited rather late in life—in my fifties. My love of Greek art was developed in Paris, Berlin, New York, London, Copenhagen, Basle. If there were no Greek art in those cities, I could have developed no love or knowledge of it. I believe in the shared heritage of mankind, and there has always been, from time immemorial, a movement of art across borders. If you follow the trade routes back into antiquity, from the Silk Road on, you find that the trade in works of art, often to vast distances, has been extremely healthy and conducive to the proliferation of styles, the amalgamation of styles, the development of art in different parts of the world.”
De Montebello says that he is a believer in the free market, in art as in other areas—which is not the same as endorsing theft. Of course, healthy trade and defensible acquisition depend on the suppression of theft and fraudulent transactions. The Met has returned works on its own initiative (a manuscript miniature to Calcutta) or on demand (Khmer sculpture to Cambodia, Ionian silver to Turkey). Countries obviously have the right to establish property laws within their own boundaries. But he thinks that some countries exercise that right against their own self-interest. Simply forbidding all antiquities from leaving a country can encourage rather than discourage theft, vandalism, and the loss of art through neglect, destruction, or smuggling.
De Montebello’s views are, in effect, endorsed by the Greek government itself, since the new galleries have the official blessing of the minister of culture, Elissavet Papazoi, and the prime minister, Kostantinos Simitis, who both attended the New York opening of the new rooms. De Montebello’s defense of his position was convincing when he offered it in Greece. He would perform a service if he welcomed discussion of such issues in the US. Undoubtedly, as he says, the press coverage of postcolonial challenges to art ownership is—like the press coverage of most things—far from adequate. But the concerns are real and deserve consideration. Acquisitions policy should be open and unashamed, welcoming scrutiny.
Though the classical galleries promise a new look at the past, there is an old-fashioned air about some of its presentation, as if the Greek achievement could be diminished by bringing modern concerns (dismissed as trendy) to it. But some of those concerns have been revivifying. They make us look at the old through new perspectives, which reveal aspects of things grown stale in past presentations. I am reminded of the policy of some American historical museums. When I was young, Monticello, Mount Vernon, and Colonial Williamsburg tried to hide the existence of slaves in the life of eighteenth-century America. Now they deliberately encourage and guide and deepen the awareness of the slaves’ role on their sites. This has not led to a devaluation of the past but to better understanding of it. I am sure that a similar development will eventually enrich the splendid classical holdings of the Metropolitan. And in any case we have this precious bit of the Mediterranean, spacious and airy, right here on Fifth Avenue.
June 10, 1999
The early controversy over the Euphronios cup is extensively covered in John L. Hess, The Grand Acquisitors (Houghton Mifflin, 1974) and Karl E. Meyer, The Plundered Past (Atheneum, 1973). The Italian government and New York’s attorney general, Louis Lefkowitz, were brought into the investigation of the vase’s purchase. It was alleged that shards from a recent Etruscan dig were parts of the vase before its reconstruction; but this proved unverifiable. No contrary case has been as strong as the one the Met’s counsel, Ashton Hawkins, made for the legitimacy of the purchase in “The Euphronoios Krater at the Metropolitan Museum: A Question of Provenance,” The Hasting Law Journal 5 (1976), pp. 1163-1181. ↩
James Davidson, Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens (St. Martin’s, 1998). This is a far from “trendy” book, challenging as it does the modern (Foucauldian) interpretation of Greek homosexuality as a power ploy. Davidson’s treatment of the hetaira brings her close to the cortigiana onesta of Renaissance Italy described by Bette Talvacchia in Taking Positions: On the Erotic in Renaissance Culture (Princeton University Press, 1999), pp. 106-108. ↩