A World of Emotions: Ancient Greece, 700 BC - 200 AD
Onassis Cultural Center New York | March 9 – June 24, 2017
The tragedy of Ajax, a fierce, respected warrior who loses himself within frenzied slaughter, still resounds two thousand years later. “Yet I feel his wretchedness,” Odysseus, his rival, laments. “My enemy, yes, but caught up in a terrible doom. My doom, too. I see that now. All we who live, live as ghosts of ourselves.” Ancient Greek literature overflows with emotive drama of this scale; but to our modern, unblinking eyes, the visual culture of early Classical Greece—the red-figure vases and upstanding kouros—feels muted, even reserved. Onassis Cultural Center’s A World of Emotions: Ancient Greece seeks to upend this disparity, presenting 130 objects that insist upon nine centuries of multifaceted emotional range.
Although couched within elegant, ethereal bodies, emotive expression was always intrinsic to Greek art, revealing itself centuries before the raw drama of Hellenistic sculpture. Throughout the exhibition’s revelatory collection of marble and terracotta relics, many of which have never traveled to the U.S., one sees the delicate ways in which Greek painters communicated extreme swings of emotion through gesture, formally innovating on the lekythos, amphora, and hydria (terms given to variously shaped jugs for mixing and serving wine). In one striking example of compositional play, a wide-mouthed cup depicts Achilles slaying Penthesilea (the Penthesilea Painter, 470 - 460 BC). As legend has it, Achilles plunged his sword into the Amazonian Queen’s breast at exactly the moment their eyes meet, and he falls haplessly in love. Setting aside the saccharin narrative, the brilliance here is in the whirlwind of bodies, overlapped and entangled. Movingly, Penthesilea’s left foot strains as her toes push against the confines of the vessel, as if it were all just an elaborate dance.
With Penthesilea and elsewhere, emotion is conveyed through paradoxical poise. Even Ajax, depicted by the Alkimachos Painter in a rare example from the same decade, is painted with balance. Moments before his brutal suicide, naked of soldierly armaments and radically suppliant, he’s fallen to his knees against a stark expanse of black.
This is not to say the expressive evolution of later Greek art isn’t exceptional; it is, as the loosely-ruffled curls and glassy-eyed gaze of Head of a Young Satyr (2nd – 1st century BCE) lusciously illustrate. In a vividly preserved Pompeiian wall painting, A Scene from the Sacrifice of Iphigeneia (62 – 79 CE), equilibrium is exchanged for heavy, downtrodden grief. Iphigenia has been sentenced to death by King Agamemnon, a bargain struck with Artemis in exchange for his army’s smooth sailing to Troy. Agamenon, entirely veiled and barely standing upright, shuns the scene of his daughter’s abduction. The painting was originally one in a series of other—seemingly always female targeted—exploits, including Achilles and Briseis, and Amphitrite and Poseidon. At Onassis Cultural Center, Iphigeneia neighbors the naively-titled Amorous Embrace of Leda and the Swan (1st – 2nd century BCE); in this small marble relief, Zeus’s webbed foot claws into Leda’s thigh, reminding us that in so much of Greek mythological art, the spectrum of female gestures are restricted to self defense.
Yet to read the serene figures of Archaic and Classical periods—the sedated precursors to Hellenistic fire—as merely stoic, is to miss the scope of the Greek worldview. Stoic philosophy, as Classicist David Konstan explains in the catalogue, did not seek to repress, rather, the aim was to study each emotion through a practiced structure of logic and consequence. For Seneca, it was essential to separate an impulse—the instantaneous, primal reactions that rile us—from genuine emotion, which he believed was grounded in analysis and judgment. To fully comprehend our emotions, Seneca might claim, what we need is time.
Sara Christoph is a former Managing Director of the Brooklyn Rail.