Hellenistic art has generally been undervalued when compared with the art of the classical era. Students of my generation were taught that the tormented gods and giants of the Pergamon Altar frieze, while admittedly awesome, appealed to a lower taste than did the stately figures of the Parthenon. But today, when restraint—aesthetic and emotional—tends to be regarded with suspicion, Hellenistic art has come into its own. This glorious exhibition, a collaboration between the Metropolitan and the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, reflects that cultural shift.
This show covers a vast geographical area and a time span extending from the death of Alexander the Great, in 323 B.C., to the reign of Augustus in the first century B.C./A.D. The territory conquered by Alexander stretched from Greece to the Indus River Valley and was ruled for centuries by his generals and their dynastic successors. Even Augustus, the next master of the universe, saw himself as Alexander’s spiritual heir.
Looted treasuries made the conquerors rich. Trade followed conquest, along with the clash and mash of artistic traditions. Alexander and his successors were lavish patrons, hosting resplendent courts, sponsoring immense architectural projects, and glorifying themselves in bronze and marble. Rulers and courtiers flaunted their wealth and status with goods made of rare and expensive materials, such as the Vienna Cameo, an exquisite double portrait of a Ptolemaic royal couple. The Ptolemies of Egypt, the most durable successor dynasty, held on to power until Cleopatra VII followed her lover, Antony, into war against the Roman Octavian, who became the Emperor Augustus.
The 264 objects in this exhibition come from almost every corner of the Hellenistic world, but the spotlight is on Pergamon, which rose to power in northwestern Turkey in the third century B.C. Pergamon’s rulers envisioned their citadel as the new Athens and built an acropolis to rival the original. A 13-foot-high marble image of the goddess, a copy of the Athenian colossus, once towered over a library containing 200,000 scrolls. At the Met, she is installed surrounded by sculptures that were unearthed nearby, including the celebrated fragmentary head of a youth found in the gymnasium.
Pergamon’s Great Altar dedicated to Zeus, with its frieze of gods battling giants, was the greatest of Hellenistic ensembles. Partially reconstructed in the Pergamon Museum, it is immovable, but a marvelous panorama painted in 1882 by Friedrich (von) Thiersch does give a sense of what the altar might have looked like on a day of sacrifice.
The enemies of the Hellenes—Gauls, Amazons, giants, and Persians—are also here, dying nobly or already beautifully dead.
By the end of first century B.C., Rome was the world’s dominant power. New faces appeared in sculpture—Caesar, Pompeii, Augustus, and perhaps the saddest, Juba II, a captive king of Mauretania who had been brought to Rome as a child to be raised as a Roman.
Our increased knowledge of Hellenistic history and culture is summed up in the exhibition (and its essential catalogue). It’s the latest in a series of mind-expanding shows devoted to the ancient world that the Met has given us in recent decades, for which we must all be grateful.