The Glory That Was . . .At the Met, Greek and Roman Antiquities Galleries Given a Grand Makeover

The Washington Post, 25 Apr 1999, p. G06.

The Glory That Was…; At the Met, Greek and Roman Antiquities Galleries Given a Grand Makeover,” The Washington Post, Apr 25, 1999, Start p. G.06

By Jason Edward Kaufman

Antiquity may resonate in Washington’s pedimented federal buildings, but a student of ancient Greece or Rome would be hard pressed to find a single classical vase or terra cotta in the capital’s otherwise rich public collections.

And not for want of interest. One recalls the excitement stirred by “The Greek Miracle,” a 1992 exhibit that brought ancient masterpieces from Athens to the National Gallery. Ordinarily, however, if Washingtonians seek to ponder relics of the civilization that gave rise to democracy, they had better plan a day trip.

As of last week, the destination of choice is New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Met has just reinstalled the largest and most comprehensive display of Greek art in the Western Hemisphere, a chronology of 1,200 works spanning the 6th through 4th centuries B.C. Many of these objects have not seen the light of day for years–not since the 1940s, when the wing designed to house them began to be taken over for other uses, including temporary shows, shops and a restaurant.

The reopening completes the first half of a planned $150 million reinstallation of the museum’s entire collection of Mediterranean antiquities. The final phase, over the next three to five years, will create new galleries for Etruscan, Roman, Cypriot, Hellenistic and South Italian art. The restaurant will be turned back into a Roman sculpture atrium named after New York collectors Shelby White and Leon Levy, who gave the museum a cool $20 million.

“Anyone who understands the role of classical art in the Western tradition will recognize the importance of returning this work to public view,” said Philippe de Montebello, the Met’s director. “In a world that is increasingly looking at the transitory and the fashionable, it is a major museological statement, I think, to go back to fundamentals, namely to the roots of Western civilization in antiquity.”

The creation of a Greek and Roman museum within the Met is the centerpiece of its five-year, $400 million capital campaign–which now stands at around $340 million and has attracted an astonishing 75 gifts of $1 million or more from individuals and foundations.

The project is spearheaded by Carlos A. Picon, the Oxford-trained curator in charge of Greek and Roman works. Picon’s installation presents a delightfully varied and lucid journey through the history of Greek art, juxtaposing ceramics, bronzes, terra cottas, jewelry and marbles that trace stylistic developments and often bear images that shed light on social themes and religious beliefs.

The director encouraged a “less is more” approach–don’t overwhelm the eye with 200 amphorae–and surely one of the virtues of the beautiful scheme by chief designer Jeffrey L. Daly is its lack of clutter.

The newly refurbished galleries’ central spine is the corridor that links the Fifth Avenue entry hall and the restaurant. Once one of the grandest sculpture galleries in America, the 140-by-27-foot expanse had become a dingy passageway to a cafeteria and a parking garage. Newly restored as the Mary and Michael Jaharis Gallery in honor of a $12 million gift from the pharmaceuticals executive, the cavernous barrel-vaulted, marble-paved chamber–a direct descendant of Roman imperial baths–again contains the large-scale statuary for which it was built.

Four doorways have been cut through the walls to allow circulation into the six nobly proportioned flanking galleries, and three skylights covered since World War II have been reopened to create a light-flooded space whose grandeur befits the greatest collection of classical art in America.

Here’s a tour of the new galleries:

* The Robert and Renee Belfer Court for early Greek art. Named in honor of the New York investor who donated $6 million, the gallery contains Cycladic marbles of harpists, a 3,200-year-old lidded sarcophagus, a luxurious bronze tripod with prancing horses and sphinxes on the rim, and an enormous grave-marker amphora with painted stick figure scenes of the funeral.

* Greek art of the 6th through 4th centuries B.C. The Mary and Michael Jaharis Gallery contains large-scale marble statues, mostly Roman copies of lost Greek bronzes, including that of Protesilaos, the first Greek to die in the Trojan War; a victorious athlete tying an award ribbon around his head; and the “Wounded Amazon.” Large vases with sporting and equestrian scenes once were filled with oil and presented as prizes at the Panathenaic games.

* Archaic Greek sculpture. This gallery is named for Judy and Michael H. Steinhardt, a retired hedge-fund manager who gave $4 million. Its Athenian funerary monuments include two of the collection’s greatest treasures: the “New York Kouros,” a life-size marble nude that marked the grave of a young Attic aristocrat, and a 14-foot column depicting a similar youth in profile with perhaps his little sister and topped by a painted sculpture of a sphinx. Vases, bronzes and terra-cotta plaques illustrate customs and beliefs about death and the afterlife, the Homeric myths, warfare and the social gatherings known as symposia.

* Greek art of the 6th century B.C. The Bothmer Gallery recognizes the Met’s curator for the past half century, Dietrich von Bothmer. Among its miscellany of objects are painted vases and cups, bronze figurines, armor, jewelry, bronze mirrors and engraved gems and coins, many with scenes illustrating life in ancient Athens. Don’t miss the large wine-mixing bowl by the master Euphronios, which shows Sleep and Death carrying a fallen Greek warrior from a Trojan battlefield.

* Greek art of the 5th century B.C. The Wiener Gallery, honoring investment manager and philanthropist Malcolm Wiener, contains reliefs and terra-cotta figurines portraying theater, musical contests, voting and the gods of the pantheon. One characteristic gravestone shows a family gathered around a seated man, perhaps the deceased; another bears a touchingly beautiful relief carving of a girl gently nuzzling her pet doves.

* Greek art of the 5th and early 4th centuries B.C. The Stavros and Danae Costopoulos Gallery honors the family of Athenian trustee Yannis Costopoulos, chairman of Alpha Credit, Greece’s largest bank. Artworks and equestrian armor from Athens in the age of the Acropolis are displayed, including a wide cup whose interior has a finely painted scene of a goddess holding a scepter and offering a libation bowl before an altar. In the showcase nearby is a silver example of the same kind of vessel.

* Greek art of the 4th century B.C. The Spyros and Eurydice Costopoulos Gallery recognizes other members of the wealthy Greek banking family. In it are colossal gravestones that take the form of vessels used in funerary rites. There are also animated Tanagra statuettes and lavish finery including the gold sheathing for a scabbard meticulously worked with a scene of Greeks battling barbarians, plus a group of gold items donated by trustee Christos G. Bastis.

[Illustration]

PHOTO; COURTESY METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART; CHART; TWP Caption: The Head Of Pan In Relief Adorns The Side Of A Bronze Box Mirror, Dating To The Late-4th Century B.C. A Gold And Rock-crystal Bracelet, With Ram-head Terminals. A Marble Column Finial In The Shape Of A Sphinx, Circa 530 B.C. NEW GREEK GALLERIES OF THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART (This Graphic Was Not Available)

Jason Edward Kaufman

This article appeared in The Washington Post, Apr 25, 1999, Start p. G.06

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Jason Edward Kaufman is an art historian and critic with expertise in museums and the international art world.

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