At the Met, a journey through the riches of Hellenistic art

Rhyton in the form of a Centaur

The glory of the Pergamon Museum on Berlin's legendary Museum Island is the eponymous Great Altar excavated by the German engineer Carl Humann between 1878 and 1886. With the permission of the Ottoman Empire and the support of Alexander Conze in Germany, Humann over time sent back to Berlin major portions of the great lower frieze from the altar, "The Gigantomachy" (The Battle of the Giants and the Gods) and the smaller Telephus frieze (the life of Telephus, the son of Herakles and founder of Pergamon) that had surrounded the fire altar of sacrifice on the altar's upper level. It was at once the rescue of one of the pinnacles of ancient art that looters were despoiling for its marble and also a deliberate political emulation of the treasures of the British Museum.

The temporary building erected to hold the Pergamon pieces proved wholly inadequate, and a new, three-winged building was designed by Alfred Messel and completed by his friend Ludwig Hoffmann, despite constant obstacles, between 1910 and 1930. That building suffered serious damage at the end of World War II. After major restorations and the return of many sculptures from the Soviet Union to the German Democratic Republic in the 1950s, another chapter in the turbulent history of the museum has now begun with its closing for a complete renovation that will last for some four more years.


New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art is the great beneficiary of that project. Fully a third of the some 265 objects in its extraordinary exhibition, "Pergamon and the Hellenistic Kingdoms of the Ancient World" (on view through July 17), come from Berlin. The show might also have been called “from Alexander to Augustus,” since it covers the three centuries between Alexander’s death in 323 B.C. and 31 B.C., when Octavian defeated Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium and soon, as Augustus, founded the Roman Empire. Its theme is the emergence of a new, international Hellenistic style that moved beyond Greek classicism and its ideal conception of form to a more dramatic and dynamic hybridity.

Alexander, whose empire extended at his death as far as the Indus River, looms large in the first gallery. Few if any contemporary images of him or works by his court sculptor Lysippos survive, but later copies bring him vividly alive. As you enter the show, a gorgeous gold and enamel myrtle wreath is so perfectly placed in a vitrine that it looks poised to be placed directly behind it on the head of the “Alexander Schwarzenberg,” a Roman copy of a Greek bronze from about 330 B.C. Here the young Alexander is shown with a lean face and small, deep-set eyes—purposeful, searching, intent. In a small bronze nearby he rides his horse Bucephalos in full heroic maturity. The gallery also boasts a marble portrait head of Aristotle, whom Alexander’s father, King Philip II, brought to Macedonia to be his son’s tutor, and next to it a much reduced copy of Lysippos’s monumental bronze, the “Weary Herakles” (or Hercules) from the third century B.C. A stunning series of portrait sculptures from the Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum, never before exhibited in this country, dramatically line the back of the gallery beneath a wall copy of the “Alexander Mosaic” from Pompeii.

But the center of the show is Pergamon. Alexander’s generals, the Diadochi (Successors), undertook responsibilities for the vast territories he had conquered. The Seleucids reigned in the Near East, the Ptolemies in Egypt and the Antigonides in Macedonia. Smaller city kingdoms arose, such as Pergamon on the western coast of Turkey (Bergama today), which served as the capital of the Attalid Dynasty from 282 to 133 B.C. and at its peak ruled over much of Asia Minor. A didactic gallery provides an overview of excavations of the capital, with Humann’s excavation diary, panoramic paintings from the 19th century and part of a 360-degree panorama of Pergamon in 129 A.D. that the artist Yadegar Asisi created for an exhibition in Berlin in 2011. (You’ll want to watch it more than once.)

But then you are summoned on by a 13-foot Hellenistic marble statue of Athena Parthenos (c. 170 B.C.), the goddess of wisdom, who has at her disposal a gallery sublimely introducing us to what Pergamon as a Hellenistic royal capital was like. Modeled on Phidias’s Athena for the Acropolis of Athens in the mid-fifth century and restored for this exhibition, she is surrounded by signs of the architectural magnificence, the importance of the gymnasium, the development of libraries and museums, the florescence of large-scale sculptures and mosaics and smaller-scale pottery and pieces in bronze and terra cotta. The enduring influence of Homer rings from a marble portrait and from a relief known as the “Apotheosis of Homer.” Masks for the theater come from the newly emergent “technitai” (or artisans) of the third century B.C., who were dedicated to the tragedies of Euripides but equally to the comedies of Menander (which suited the new taste for the ordinary and incongruous). Perhaps most Hellenistic and memorable of all—fairly throbbing with feeling, suggesting a very personal story about to be told—is the fragment of the colossal marble head of a young man (dated to the second century B.C.), whose flowing hair, elegant nose, deeply carved, sensuous lips and slightly dimpled chin are impossible to imagine without the achievement of the classical ideal and yet so clearly reveal a newly expressive, complex emotionalism.

At the center of the citadel stood the Sanctuary of Athena of the City and Bearer of Victory. Here, as in fifth century Athens, were the monuments and spoils of war that celebrated the Attalids’ victories over their enemies (the “barbarians”). Implements of battle shown include a bronze shield decorated with a symbol of Macedonian kingship, a bronze helmet and the only surviving bronze trumpet from antiquity. Placed as they would have been on a terrace of the sanctuary are half-life-size marble figures of a dying giant, a dying Amazon and the famous “Dying Gaul” from the Capitoline Museum in Rome, all second century A.D. copies of second century B.C. bronzes.

On a terrace to the south of and below the Sanctuary of Athena was Pergamon’s grandest building, the Great Altar, built under King Eumenes II. From an immense podium around whose base ran the seven-feet-high and 394-feet-long frieze of the Gigantomachy, there rose a broad flight of stairs to an upper level with the altar of sacrifice and, around it on the inner courtyard, the Telephos frieze. An Ionic colonnade surrounded the complex and on the roof above were sculptures in the round known as acroteria.

The presentation is a bit crowded, but the Met has done a remarkable job in suggesting the drama and majesty of the altar as a whole. Along with a scale model (though recent, it is already outdated), there are fragments from “The Gigantomachy” and architectural fragments of the building as a whole; two slabs from the Telephos frieze; several acroteria; and a considerable number of related pieces in similar style. (Do not miss the colossal marble head of Herakles or the marble female head known as “The Beautiful Head,” which caused a sensation when it was first exhibited in Berlin.)

A gallery devoted then to “the luxury arts” is in fact a collection of dazzling small shows. If you enjoy numismatics, you’ll have a field day here, discovering how Hellenistic kings, after Alexander’s example, spread their likenesses through their realms. (Lysimachos of Thrace, one of the Successors, put an idealized image of Alexander on his coinage.) Gleaming glassware melded Greek and Persian traditions, as in a stand-out glass bowl with gold-leaf decoration now in the British Museum. Craftsmanship served luxury in astonishing cameos; find the large piece that portrays Ptolemy II Philadelphos and Arsinoe II, the sister he also took as his wife. Gold, often enriched with garnets or emeralds, was fashioned into armbands, hairnets, diadems, rings and earrings, brooches, necklaces and torques. For both religious and decorative purposes, exquisite smaller bronzes were fashioned for homes; the exhibition’s stellar examples include a bronze statuette of Aphrodite from the Getty and the Met’s own masked and veiled dancer, known as “The Baker Dancer,” a wonderfully mysterious and beguiling little figure.

Rome’s military ascendancy made it the center of the Hellenistic world in the second century B.C. (Attalus III simply “bequeathed” Pergamon to Rome when he died in 133 B.C.) The demand for Greek art became so great that artists from Athens moved to Rome to satisfy it. In the final gallery of the Met’s exhibition we are given a splendid survey of Roman taste and distinguished portraiture. A bronze statue of a sleeping Eros (a Hellenistic innovation) is shown next to a marble of a sleeping hermaphrodite (also a typically Hellenistic interest). You share a Roman admiration for great men when you stand before “The Tivoli General,” a marble portrait statue of a Roman general so called because he is supported by his breast plate, or a compelling portrait head of Julius Caesar that comes from the first century A.D. but is based on a prototype from the time of his death. (It may well have been commissioned by Octavian Augustus, the great-nephew whom Caesar’s will named as his heir.) The famous marble of a boy pulling a thorn from his foot (“Il Spinario”) is here from the British Museum, evidence of Hellenistic and Roman interest in the everyday. (The even more famous, later bronze version is in Rome’s Capitoline Museum.) And for sheer grandeur nothing much tops the enormous marble calyx-krater known as “The Borghese Krater” (40-30 B.C.), a riff on what was once a drinking vessel but now has morphed into a purely decorative piece showing Dionysos, god of wine, standing with his consort Ariadne and surrounded by dancing maenads and satyrs.

Met visitors are indebted to Carlos A. Picón, head of the museum’s Greek and Roman art department, and curator Seán Hemingway, who led an outstanding team in organizing the exhibition. The elegance of the installation prevents it from being exhausting, and beyond the splendor of the objects presented what you can learn from them is almost inexhaustible. There is first the great lesson of intercultural exchange and creative ferment. Alexander the Great had created a new world of encounter and multiplicity. He and the Hellenistic leaders who followed him moved inexorably beyond the classical ideals of order, harmony and ideal form. They introduced a new cultural ideal of incomplete, historical pluralism, with expressionist and singularly dramatic dynamism. And it was called “the Hellenistic,” a style not too long ago considered overdone and decadent but now revealed at the Met in triumph.

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