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The Weekend Neos Kosmos : 8 November 2014
FEATURE 12 SATURDAY 8 NOVEMBER 2014 Today one of the most comprehensive art museums in the world, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, US, encompasses a collection of nearly 450,000 works of art. Amongst them is a fine collection of art and artefacts of the ancient world, ranking among the premier encyclopedic collections in the world, with over 83,000 works of art from Egypt, Nubia, the Near East, Greece, Italy, Cyprus, and Anatolia. The objects in the collection range in date from about 6500BC to AD600. While for many years few areas of the Museum of Fine Arts' (MFA) permanent collection were more poorly presented to the public than its Greek and Roman holdings, with the relevant galleries having almost no climate control, recently three contiguous galleries devoted to aspects of ancient Greece have been opened to the public. The difference they make is enormous, according to Sebastian Smee, of the Boston Globe, who recently wrote a piece calling for Americans and those living in Boston - the 'Athens of America' - to support the MFA. The installation was planned and executed by Christine Kondoleon and Phoebe Segal, the MFA's curator and assistant curator, of Greek and Roman art respectively, with each of the three galleries arranged by theme. The first is devoted to Homer and the Epics. The second focuses on Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, and the Symposium. The third, called Theatre and Performance, explores Greek theatre, including comedy, tragedy, and music. "These themes are all interconnected," Smee writes, "but as distinct categories, they make excellent sense. Not only do they answer to basic aspects of our curiosity about the culture of ancient Greece, but they also play to the MFA's strengths." In his review, Smee regards the MFA's collection of Homeric material as probably the best in the United States. One of its star objects is a bust of Homer himself, widely considered to be the world's finest. "Carved from Greek marble, it dates to around the time of Christ, so it's younger than many of the other objects here. But the tangled knots of the poet's beard and hair, his blind eyes, his animated brow and his craggy face all convey an inward intensity that establishes him instantly as the gallery's presiding genius. "Homer's centrality to the Greeks had crystallised by about the sixth century BC, and in the later stages of the Archaic Period (800-400BC), representations of events relating to his Iliad, and to other lost epics concerning the Trojan War, appeared with increasing frequency." A stunning mixing bowl, from about 490-480BC, depicts two violent scenes from the war. One side shows Achilles stabbing Memnon, the king of Ethiopia. Memnon fought on the Trojan side, and here falls into the arms of his mother, Eos, goddess of the dawn. The other side shows Diomedes, the greatest of Greek warriors after Achilles. He is shown wounding Aeneas, the Trojan prince who, according to Virgil, went on to found Rome. Just as Memnon falls into the arms of Eos, Aeneas falls into the arms of his mother, Aphrodite. "There are other extraordinary things here - too many to mention. A red figure mixing bowl (about 470-460 BC) shows atrociously violent scenes from the fall of Troy. On the other side of the room, various objects depict lurid or fantastical characters from the Odyssey. There is an impressive sculpted head of the fearsome Cyclops, Polyphemus, whose one, centred eye connects him, strangely, with the blind bust of Homer across the gallery." In the gallery devoted to Dionysus and the Symposium, Smee writes, visitors are gently ushered away from the heady realm of the epics into a more social one, presented with a fitting blend of theatre and anthropological curiosity. The layout of the gallery, with a big central table holding a giant, brass mixing bowl, invites the visitors to imagine a typical symposium. There is a fourth century BC marble head of Dionysus, as crucial to this gallery as the bust of Homer is to the earlier one. "There are also satyrs, erotic scenes, and references to wine and drinking. Look out for the small decorated cups, which were designed as presents for young boys and used to give them their first taste of wine." The third and final gallery, dedicated to theatre, is as compelling and various as the first two. There is a herm-bust of Menander, the great dramatist who wrote more than 100 comedies. There are wonderful masks, grotesque heads, and a small selection of the MFA's extraordinary collection of small Greek terracottas, many of them showing comic actors in character. Plans are now in place to overhaul and rationalise the rest of the MFA's classical galleries, Smee writes, so that Greek, Roman, and Etruscan art, along with the recently installed ancient coins gallery, will all be on the same level. "Unfortunately, it seems the project will depend on the unpredictable availability of money," Smee says. "So come, generous donors of Boston! Get on that phone. You live in the Athens of America, after all. We are talking about objects and a culture that occupy a central place in Western civilisation, objects that have arrived in our presence after a very long journey indeed. "Do not betray them now. Pick up a copy of The Iliad or look into the blind eyes of the MFA's Homer. Straightaway, you will see why it matters." * The review by Sebastian Smee was published in the Boston Globe on 23 October 2014. A collection of jars and bowls. PHOTOS COURTESY OF THE MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS, BOSTON. Stunning Greek antiquities shine in Boston's museum The Ancient World collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston ranks amongst the finest in the world, with its three galleries devoted to ancient Greece recently opened to the public A bust of Homer. Bowl (dinos) depicting athletes training, about 430-420BC. Tetradrachm of Naxos with head of Dionysos, about 460BC. Tetradrachm of Gaza with head of Athena, about 400BC. Mantiklos Apollo, about 700-675BC.
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