The Greek and Roman Galleries
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
The ancient world still casts a spell. While the educated publicsurely knows less about Greek and Roman culture than it did ahundred years ago, many men and women continue to approachantiquity with keen expectations, believing that even a rapidglance in that distant mirror can help us better understandourselves. Robert Fagles's new translation of the Aeneid was apublishing event last fall, with commentators suggesting thatVirgil's reflections on war and empire could shed some light onAmerica's situation in Iraq; more generally, the question ofwhether America is Rome increasingly preoccupies contemporarydebates about American foreign policy. And far away from the worldsof power and policy, the opening of the final sections of the newGreek and Roman Galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art hasturned out to be one of the most engrossing museumgoing experiencesof recent years. Walking through the galleries on a weekdayafternoon, you can see how eagerly, how gleefully, college studentsrespond to the unabashed eroticism of the ancient world, to anavidity for bodies that makes even twenty-first-century urbanpermissiveness look rather puritanical.
There is something at once bluntly familiar and utterly impenetrableabout antiquity. Even people who have not read the Iliad or lookedclosely at a Greek vase can feel that they are acquainted withthese cultural landmarks. But knowing how to assess such ancientachievements is another matter entirely. Is the Iliad a story ofheroic individualism? Or is it an allegory of the dangers of pureforce, as Simone Weil suggested in a famous essay written on the eveof World War II? When we look at Greek vase paintings, are wemistaken in seeing some mismatch, or at least some tension, betweenthe nearly abstract elegance of the figurative style and thebrazenly realistic treatment of sexual encounters? These are thesorts of questions that are raised by all important works of artand literature, which by their very nature can mean many differentthings. But the stakes are raised almost impossibly high when we arelooking at the ancient world, for if the art and literature andphilosophy of Greece and Rome are the beginnings of Westerncivilization, then the act of interpretation becomes nothing lessthan a referendum on ourselves. There is a tug-of-war that emerges.We want the ancients to reveal themselves to us, which often meansthat we expect to understand them in our terms. But the closer welook, the more alien they appear. For creative spirits such asMichelangelo and Nietzsche and Joyce, the otherness of antiquityturned out to be part of its significance. The shock of discoveringthat what you imagined you knew was, in fact, relatively unknowncould illuminate your own nature, your own situation.
The most we can generally hope to grasp of the ancient world areglimpses-- fragmented vistas, partial perspectives, moments ofinsight. These glimpses, the large ones as well as the small ones,are precisely what a museumgoer discovers amid the sunstruckelegance of the Greek and Roman Galleries. The Metropolitan haslong possessed what is probably the finest collection of Greek andRoman art outside of Europe. And that collection has never lookedbetter than in this luminous re-installation, fifteen years in themaking and opened in stages over the last ten years. The architectKevin Roche has done a brilliant job of revitalizing the visualbeauties of the old McKim, Mead and White galleries on the museum'ssouthern flank, which were constructed early in the twentiethcentury in a Beaux-Arts style that selfconsciously recapitulatedthe vaulted spaces of ancient Rome. For New Yorkers, the galleriescome with built-in memories--of antiquities seen here in decadespast, and also of the central court, which for many years was themuseum restaurant, with a pool and splashing fountains andcavorting bronze figures, all part of an interior by the legendaryand now once again fashionable decorator Dorothy Draper. But evenif you have never been to the Metropolitan before, these finelyproportioned galleries suggest historical perspectives, an earlytwentieth-century Beaux- Arts past that simultaneously evokes amuch earlier time and creates a confidently theatrical setting thatsituates the art of the ancient world in the present, with arenewed emphasis on huge skylights that dramatize the chiaroscuropower of sculptural form.
Those who go to museums in search of innovative installations maythink that the Metropolitan has left ancient art looking more orless the way it always looked. And this may be precisely whatCarlos A. Picon, the curator in charge of the Greek and RomanGalleries, has set out to do. The gathering of gods and heroes andathletes that fills the grandly scaled central spaces in the Greekand Roman Galleries will give many museumgoers a sense of deja vu,evoking memories of antiquities glimpsed in any number ofcollections in Rome or Paris, or for that matter in sepia-tonedphotographs of the galleries of the Metropolitan as they lookedseventy-five years ago. But is familiarity necessarily a bad thing?In a museum as encyclopedic as the Metropolitan, where Asian andAfrican art have been beautifully presented in recent years, onemight argue that there is now an ideal of equal-opportunityfamiliarity. From the Greek and Roman Galleries you can walkstraight into the galleries devoted to the art of Africa and theSouth Seas--to what used to be called primitive art. And for someyounger museumgoers, a Papuan spirit board may feel more familiarthan a Roman copy of a sculpture of an athlete by Polykleitos.Ancient art was where the Metropolitan started: a collection ofsome 35,000 antiquities from Cyprus, collected by General LuigiPalma di Cesnola, was the museum's first great acquisition, andCesnola was the first director of the museum. In giving its Greekand Roman collections this sumptuous re-installation, the museum isreturning to its roots--and every return provokes areconsideration. At the Metropolitan, the Greek and Roman Galleriesnow emerge as one piece-- admittedly a very large piece--of anenormous puzzle, the puzzle of art and culture.
The Greek and Roman Galleries are cosmopolitan in spirit. But theyalso serve to remind us that cosmopolitanism begins at home. I meanthat it is through our efforts to understand the traditions closestto us that we acquire the critical tools that will enable us tounderstand other traditions, distant traditions, strangetraditions. In the catalogue that the Metropolitan has published tomark this occasion, the works gathered in the Greek and RomanGalleries are referred to as "Art of the Classical World," and thecurators at the Metropolitan would perhaps like us to accept"classical" as a term with a relatively simple meaning, as denotingnothing more than the art produced in a certain geographical areaover a certain period of time. At the Metropolitan they may wellfear the elitist or exclusionary implications that are sometimesnow attached to classical ideas and ideals. Yet "classical" is oneof those familiar words loaded with meanings, and when we think ofthe art of Greece and Rome as classical, we are willy-nillythinking about values of completeness, of resolution, ofperfection--those are the classical ideals--that can help usunderstand the art of many times and places. Already in ancient Romecertain Greek works were described as classics, and by now we haveno trouble speaking of, say, a classical moment in African art.
As pluralists who are comfortable in a museum where we easily movefrom the art of Africa to the art of Asia, we are quite obviouslyunwilling to accept classicism as a form of perfection to whichonly one civilization has access. But there is no reason to assumethat classicism, even in its ancient forms, was ever a fixed orstatic idea. The Romans recognized that the classical style, as itdeveloped in the second half of the fifth century B.C.E., involvedsome reconciliation of the forces of realism and idealism. Thatsuch a classical style was born of a struggle would not havesurprised the ancients, who loved to relate stories about therivalries of great artists; and I think it is in this spirit ofclassicism as a never-ending struggle, of classicism as dynamic andalways in motion, that contemporary museumgoers will want toexperience the Greek and Roman Galleries.
In the 1920s, Andre Gide identified the element of struggle inclassicism when he observed that "the classical work of art tellsof the triumph of order and measure over inner romanticism." TheGreek and Roman Galleries present such a great variety of work thatwe cannot help but be brought close to the romantic urges thatclassicism sets out to subdue. We have here, after all, not onlythe cool athleticism of a Roman copy of a statue of a young man byPolykleitos, but also the dreamy smile of an early fifth-centuryyouth, the clotted-cream lusciousness of a Dionysian sarcophagusfrom the third century C. E., and the blunt realism of a monumentalhead of Constantine from the fourth century C.E. We understand whatGide meant when he said that "the greater the initial revolt of theobject brought under subjection, the more beautiful is the work ofart." Indeed, the trouble with some of the chilliest of the Romancopies of Greek statues is that the romantic heat was probably notthere to begin with. "True classicism," Gide continues, "iscomposed of nothing that restricts or suppresses; it is not so muchconservative as creative; it turns away from archaism and refusesto believe that everything has already been said. "
The wonder of this beautiful installation is that it is not modern,or postmodern, or anti-modern. Instead it presents the beginningsof art in the West in a manner that is free-spirited, open-minded,and bracingly unideological. In one respect there could hardly havebeen a worse time to open these galleries, for in recent yearsancient art and archaeology have been under a cloud of scandal,with museums, especially in the United States, accused by Europeangovernments of collaborating, at least tacitly, with unscrupulousdealers and overeager collectors to flout or finesse laws designedto protect the national patrimony. The appetite for antiquities hasplaced many dealers, collectors, and even curators on a collisioncourse with archaeologists and scholars who quite rightly areprotesting the ongoing destruction of archaeological sites; andindeed, Shelby White and the late Leon Levy, major donors to theMetropolitan after whom the Roman court has been named, have beenwidely criticized in some parts of the scholarly world.
More than a year ago, when Philippe de Montebello, the director ofthe Metropolitan, sat down with Italian officials to resolve claimsagainst works in the museum's collection, skeptics could argue thathe was simply practicing damage control. By hammering out arepatriation plan that includes long-term loans, he freed theMetropolitan from the aura of illegality that has enveloped theGetty in Los Angeles and once again proved himself a masterpolitician. But de Montebello was doing something more important,too. He was announcing that the Metropolitan is dedicated tosomething higher than provenance and provincialism; that thequestion of what belongs to "us" and what belongs to "them" mustnever overshadow the greater power, the universal power, of the artitself, which is that it belongs to anybody who takes a heartfeltinterest.
In "A History of the Department of Greek and Roman Art," an essaythat Picon has contributed to the new handbook of theMetropolitan's classical collections, we are invited to review themuseum's century-long efforts on behalf of ancient art. Piconlingers over the distinguished scholars who have served at theMetropolitan, among them Gisela M.A. Richter, who in the mid-centuryyears oversaw important acquisitions and wrote some of the museum'spioneering catalogues. The truth is that many, if not most, of theessential monuments of the Metropolitan's collection were acquireddecades, even generations, ago. So the scandals of recent times donot have that much to do with the core of the museum's collection,although of course the seamier side of the antiquities trade is avery old story-- a story that some would say dates back to ancienttimes, when Romans hungry for statues to decorate their villas didnot care how their agents got the goods out of Greece. Theessential theme of Picon's essay, a theme that is never statedoutright, is that even if some of the treasures in the Metropolitanwere not exactly honestly acquired, the curators who built thedepartment have been animated by the most serious sort of engagementwith the art of the ancient world.
There is an extraordinarily satisfying solidity about the newpresentation of ancient art at the Metropolitan. The works aredeployed with a lucidity that allows them to tell their ownstories, and this means that what you find here are many, manystories. My guess is that most people instinctively pick and choosewhich stories they take in. The resplendent arrangement of Romanpaintings, for example, has struck a chord in quite a fewmuseumgoers, who see more clearly than ever before how muchEuropean painting owes to antiquity. There is a feeling ofgenerosity about these galleries--in the beautiful marble floors,the abundant light, the well-paced displays. Visitors are beingvery well treated indeed, and that leaves them free to look and towonder and to dream. Everything feels clean-swept, burnished,honey-dipped. There is something almost sacerdotal about the waythe spaces unfold, with that central spine of classical sculptureleading to Greek funerary monuments, Roman wall paintings, Etruscanbronzes. The experience is irresistible, a heady mix of thesensuous and the cerebral, the pagan and the austere.
Classicism originated in the most basic of artistic urges: the urgeto represent the human figure. And the classical struggle toreconcile the rival claims of reason and passion found a perfectexpression in the body of the warrior or the athlete, the body thatwas at once a machine engineered to accomplish certain tasks and anobject of pure erotic delight. The longer you look at the art ofthe ancient world, the more you can see that both realism andidealism were techniques for mapping human consciousness, for givinga concrete form to the fundamentally human recognition that we musttake responsibility for the space that we occupy in the world.
The new Greek and Roman Galleries, which present nothing less thanthe beginnings of art in the West, raise aesthetics to the level ofmyth. But whose myths are we actually seeing? When I sit amongthese fragments of the classical world, I do not find myselfthinking of classicism in the eighteenth-century sense of a perfectresolution of basic conflicts. Instead I am struck by the extent towhich Western art is primarily and essentially an art of volume andmass and weight. And of course such an intuition is itself areframing of classicism as a formalist idea--a modern myth, if youwill.
But is it merely a modern myth? Or is it a modern myth that overlapswith certain ancient myths? John Onians, in a fascinating bookcalled Classical Art and the Cultures of Greece and Rome, begins byexplaining that in Greek creation myths there is an idea thatmankind was made from stone, and he contrasts this with thethinking of people "who lived in the alluvial plains of Mesopotamiaand elsewhere [and thought] of themselves as made of clay," aninfinitely more malleable material. Onians asserts that the creationof figures out of stone occurs among the inhabitants of the Aegeanand the Greek peninsula much earlier than elsewhere in the world,and he speculates that these people "must have experienced anunconscious affinity with the rock with which they weresurrounded." Now here is an ancient creation story that forms aconvincing prologue to the art of Michelangelo and Brancusi, inwhich the emphasis is always on the centeredness of the masses, onthe gravitational pull of the forms, on the sense of the work ofart as a massing of energies that displaces other energies in theworld.
Onians sees an underlying emphasis on force in Greek art andarchitecture, an interest in clearly shaping and realizing formsand spaces that he relates to the appetite for competitive sportsand the fascination with the art of war. Others will detect anessential belligerence, or at least an aggressive swagger, in theart of the ancient world as it is represented at the Metropolitan,where muscled bodies again and again take center stage. But it isalso true that in the classical tradition the very concentration offorms can signify the containment or masking of feeling. A finecase is the image of Athena, the goddess of war, whose boldlyarticulated facial features suggest a focusing of martial powers.The weight of a form does not necessarily suggest belligerence. Inred-figure pottery the silhouetted figures register as powerfullyself- contained personalities, sometimes as almost quietistic. Andthe still-life objects in Roman wall painting have their own kindof inward-turning volumetric power. The values of weight, mass, andvolume that characterize Western art can suggest psychologicalconcentration or erotic receptivity as easily as they can suggestathletic aggression. Indeed, the merging of power and passivity isone of the most striking features of ancient art, especially inwhat has come to be thought of as the high classical period, in thelate fifth century.
Of course, mass, volume, and weight were often complicated andenriched in the ancient world by the play of lines across surfacesand the patterning and interweaving of forms, interests that weoften understand as originating in the East and flowing into theMediterranean world along the Silk Road. That Western art is an artof mass and Eastern art is an art of surfaces is a sweepinggeneralization, but there is a kernel of truth in it. This is not tosay that there are not sculptural traditions in Asia in which massplays a powerful role. And before we assume that an art that valuesline over volume is essentially non-Western, we must remember thedeliciously sensitive line engravings on Etruscan bronze mirrors,or for that matter the story that Pliny tells of the competitionbetween Apelles and Protogenes, two great painters who wanted toprove which of them could draw the most beautiful single line.Still, there is an indisputable Mediterranean emphasis on theimportance of sculptural masses that begins with the kouros figuresand remains a powerful tradition down to our own day. It is atradition that quite obviously animates the work of Masaccio andRaphael in the Renaissance, but it also informs the pitcher in astill life by Chardin and the powerful assertion of the redrectangle in a painting by Mondrian. This is a tradition that weinvoke every time we speak of the weight of a brushstroke, theweight of a color. In this Mediterranean tradition, the power ofform almost invariably registers as an assertion of the self.
It is not surprising that the Metropolitan's collection, which wasto a large extent formed in the first half of the twentiethcentury, reflects a modern affinity with the prehistory and thedawn of the Greek experience. In the earlier Greek and RomanGalleries, you will find premonitions of Brancusi, of Arp, ofModigliani's sculpture, of the paintings of Picasso's Rose Period.The marble figures carved between 3000 and 2500 B.C.E., theseearliest expressions of the art of the Aegean, mark the beginningsof the classical yearning to make order of life's chaos. There is atempering of unruly experience in the Cycladic image of the head asa flat plane punctuated by the triangular promontory of the nose, adistillation of the body into a geometry of signs and symbols, abeautifully restrained formality. And in the meticulously griddedand ruled surfaces of the geometric-style pottery that dates fromthe eighth century B.C.E., the image of a soldier carrying a greatshield has a summary, epigrammatic power that prefigures thepersonages of Klee and Miro.
A few steps away, we are confronted by the kouros figure from thesixth century that is one of the essential treasures of theMetropolitan; it came into the collection in 1932. In thismasterpiece, you can feel the Greeks moving away from the hieraticrigidities of Egyptian sculpture, turning from the bracinggeneralization that is Egyptian anatomy to a new interest in poeticparticularization. Here is the adolescent boy who epitomizes theadolescence of the classical tradition, a boy who is just beginningto feel the power of his slim torso and powerful thighs, whosenarcissism is still tamped down, whose flesh has not quite yet beensprung from the chrysalis of geometry.
The galleries at the Metropolitan offer a number of works in whichone can glimpse the full power of the classical style of the fifthand fourth centuries. A head of a smiling youth from around 490B.C.E. has a remarkable expressive easiness. A grave marker of awoman, with her head bent in thought, has a pensive yet voluptuousimpact that brings to mind the muses of Ingres and Corot. And thereis a mysterious lyric rhythm to a group of funerary lekythos, stonemonuments shaped like great oil flasks and carved with serenelylovely figural reliefs.
Still, there are many aspects of Greek and Roman art that willremain closed to museumgoers at the Metropolitan. In the ancientworld, sculpture was as often as not knit deep into thearchitectural fabric, and there is nothing in New York that evenbrings you near the sense of the figure as an expression of theabstract force of architecture that you find in the Parthenonmarbles in London or the Pergamon Altar in Berlin. The stirringvehemence of Hellenistic carving can look slightly rhetorical, attimes almost comic, at the Metropolitan, where there are few works,even fragmentary works, that come close to the powerful expressionof muscular pressures in the Belvedere Torso and the Laocoon inRome and the Barberini Faun in Munich.
Looking at Roman copies of Greek originals, whether at theMetropolitan or at any other great museum, can be like reading tealeaves, but of course the fact is that the lion's share of what weknow of Greek sculpture is from Roman copies. A copy of a statue ofa young man by Polykleitos is a key work for the understanding ofthis great sculptor's achievement, but as an object in its ownright it has an icy fixity that suggests Roman nostalgia rather thanGreek discovery. Yet there is at least one Roman marble copy at theMetropolitan, of a mid-fifth-century Greek bronze of a woundedwarrior, with a tensed physical power that suggests some terrifyingmixture of guts and fear and pride. This statue evokes the ripplingmuscular fluidity that we know from the bronzes that have beenrecovered from the sea in the last hundred years, nearly all ofwhich are in Greece and Italy.
The installations at the Metropolitan are intelligently paced,wisely varied. I was intrigued by some plaster reliefs in the Romangalleries, playful and almost painterly in their manipulation ofthe soft material into figures that suggest the ease of Bernini'sterra-cottas. And then there are the galleries devoted to Etruscanart, where classical forms are given a particular, almost naiveweight and pungency. Among the objects that struck me most stronglyhere was a large cista, a toiletries box, a grand bronze cylinderengraved with scenes of combat. The handle on its lid is a figuregroup. Two winged genii carry on their outstretched arms the bodyof a dead soldier, and his stiffly horizontal form makes a shockingcontrast with the easygoing fluidity of these unearthly youths,whose wings are so magnificently dynamic, whose legs stride soconfidently forward. This is an astonishing image of youth, heroism,and loss.
The curators at the Metropolitan have rejected the frequentlyoverstuffed exhibition style of earlier museum displays withoutfalling into the dangers of an ultramodern sort of jewel-boxdisplay. There are smaller exhibition cases in the side galleriesthat present arrays of objects that reflect the intricacies ofdaily life, albeit among the very wealthy. There are miracles ofcraft and elegance to be found among the gold jewelry, theterra-cotta and alabaster and marble containers for perfume, thetiny carved boxes, and it is fascinating to see how the simplestmotifs, a seashell or a palm leaf, can be adumbrated in a greatvariety of materials. The museum's splendid holdings in Greekpottery are given breathing space. In some galleries pottery iswinningly mingled with sculpture; in other galleries there are morehistorically focused displays that aim to articulate the styles ofparticular painters. Masterpieces stand out, among them the neckamphora, attributed to the Lykaon Painter, on which the youthfulwarrior Neoptolemos, utterly at ease in his long, lean body,extends his hand to his father in an infinitely elegant gesture offarewell. There are intimate spaces tucked away amid the grandspaces in the Greek and Roman Galleries, especially a Hellenistictreasury, where it is possible to focus on the pyrotechnicalintricacies of ancient metalwork. Among the wonders gathered hereis a bronze statue of a veiled and masked dancer, from the third orsecond century B.C.E., which is a miracle of movement, with thedancer's right foot raised from the ground as she spins and whirls,suggesting a kinetic power perhaps not seen again in sculptureuntil Degas's dancers more than two thousand years later.
In ancient art, virtuosity can sometimes seem to be more greatlyprized than beauty, and it is one of the fascinations of theHellenistic and Roman periods that when virtuosity is turned to therendering of naturalistic effects, artists may be less concernedwith establishing the truth than with creating an illusion. Theevocation of fabric through bronze in that astonishing little studyof a dancer has some of the quality of a magic trick. Ancientrenderings of the old and the weak may be meant to evoke pity, butwhat they more often invite is an admiration for the artist who hastugged at our heartstrings. The statue of an old woman, afirst-century C.E. copy of a late second-century B.C. E. original,is fierce in its unremitting rendering of the furrowed face, thebent posture, and the sagging breasts. The loss of health isobserved with such intimacy that it cannot but have some moralizingimport, though I am also left wondering if what is at work here isa voyeuristic pagan fascination with physicality in all itsharrowing variety. Here we confront a hyperbolic naturalism that isa celebration of artfulness before it is a celebration of life.This is naturalism as a form of mannerism, which perhaps suggestswhy it was that for the ancients classicism was finally the trueface of reality.
The consciousness of stylistic choice, which is sometimes said to bea modern phenomenon, was already at play in the Hellenistic andRoman worlds. The Romans understood that classical idealism wouldnot do where portraits of themselves and their families wereconcerned, and indeed the hyperbolic naturalism of the Hellenisticworld would not do either, so it was replaced by a plainspokenpsychological naturalism that we only encounter again more than athousand years later, when the merchant classes of the late MiddleAges sat for their portraits. Some of the essential examples ofancient realism in the Metropolitan are the portraits done in RomanEgypt in the second century C.E. that hang in the EgyptianGalleries. Painted in encaustic and preserved in burial sites, theeasy naturalism of these modest yet unforgettable likenessesprovides some of our most important insights into the nature ofclassical painting, one of the grand arts of the ancient world ofwhich we have only the most fragmentary remains. I wonder if thereis some way for these portraits to be placed on permanent loan fromthe Egyptian department to the Greek and Roman Galleries, wherethey could add immeasurably to what is already a magnificentdisplay of Roman painting.
The wall paintings from southern Italy, long treasures of theMetropolitan, have never looked as good as they do now. Unabashedlydecorative in their intentions, designed to form a backdrop for theluxurious lives of wealthy Romans, these paintings reflect theebullient theatricality of ancient art, whether in the boldlycubified, wittily toy-like rendering of a city in a bedroom from avilla at Boscoreale, or in the playful arabesques, a veritablerehearsal of the eighteenth-century rococo, in another bedroom, thisone from Boscotrecase. But there are also, here and there among thepaintings, glimpses of emotional depths--in the enchanting darkeyes and sideways glance of a woman playing a lyre and in thefamous glass bowl full of fruit in the Boscoreale bedroom, a stilllife of a subtlety that points all the way to Cezanne.
There is so much packed into the Greek and Roman Galleries that youmay have to remind yourself that this expansive presentation istelescopic, a distillation. The compression of time and geographythat we experience in these galleries, the sense of the art of theancient world as something that can be embraced in the course of afew hours--this is a falsification of the past that enables us togive a shape to the past. And when we give a shape to the past, weare also uncovering a truth about the past. It was by looking backat the gradually shifting styles of Greek art that the ancientsthemselves first began to appreciate stylistic distinctions, beganto see a classical moment in the fifth century that they endeavoredto reclaim centuries later. And for Europeans since the end of theMiddle Ages there has been an ever-widening sense of the ancientworld as containing a range of styles, not only moments ofstylistic equilibrium but also periods of stylistic imbalance. Wetake it for granted that Donatello, Michelangelo, Bernini, andBrancusi each had a separate but equal grasp of the classicaltradition.
There has never been a period that did not remake the ancient worldin its own image, so it is not surprising that in our democratictimes we are so extraordinarily attuned to antiquity's stylisticpluralism. I think it is Picasso, more than any other artist, whotaught us to see ancient art in terms of these multiplyingdialectics, in terms of the vigorous struggles that Gide described.In Picasso's work antiquity is kaleidoscopic, an ever-shiftingarray of allusions to a range of ancient styles--archaic, earlyclassical, high classical, Hellenistic, Roman, Etruscan--whichenable him to represent everything from Apollonian thought toDionysian passion, from dreamy passivity to raging libido. Evenwithin a single work, Picasso sometimes introduces several antiquestyles, giving a fifth-century B.C.E. purity to a young woman whilehe describes an older man with all the rhetorical flourishes of theHellenistic baroque. For Picasso, the ancient world became a dreamworld, a memory theater, an encyclopedia of the passions, andmuseumgoers are going to feel the tug of that ancient magic.
But there was something else, I think, that Picasso loved aboutancient art, something that will also strike visitors to the Greekand Roman Galleries at the Metropolitan. This is the absolute powerwith which materials are handled. (It was surely Picasso's desireto beat the ancient potters at their own game that set him to workin Vallauris after World War II, where he produced enough platesand vases and pitchers to fill the needs of a medium-sized Romancity.) Before he was anything else, the ancient artist was amaterialist, focused on the hunk of marble or the pile of clay orthe bit of gold on his workroom table. And there was a kind ofgenius about the intensity with which these ancient craftsmenworked stone, clay, glass, bone, bronze, gold, and silver. Theynever forgot that they were making an object, a thing.
And this brings us back to the weight of ancient art--not just tothe weight of the materials, but also to the weight of attentionthat was brought to bear on these materials, to the sense ofclassical style as a celebration of mass, volume, weight. In themodern world, culture has too often become something light, anatmosphere or a mood that can be turned on or shut off at will. Soit can be startling, and also somehow consoling, to confront thefierce, full-out materiality of ancient art. Going through theGreek and Roman Galleries, I am reminded, time and again, that thelife of forms, so often regarded as a play of the imagination,originates in the brute force of materials. Classical style beginswith classical weight.