Greek Heroes at the Onassis Cultural Center
Hero worship in the ancient world was nothing like our own. Whereas we are quick to denounce athletes, politicians, and celebs with very human flaws, the Greeks had a different take. Theirs was a broader view that didn't require total moral excellence. Their concept of heroes and heroines was complicated, changeable, and perhaps more forgiving than our own.
What makes someone a hero or heroine? That's the context for this new exhibition of 90 exceptional artworks focusing on Archaic, Classical, and the Hellenic periods (6th-first century BC) at the Onassis Cultural Center in midtown Manhattan. "Heroes: Mortals and Myths in Ancient Greece" explores the Greek interpretation of heroism with decorated pottery, marble reliefs, bronze statues, and carved gemstones. As this intriguing show emphasizes, virtue was not necessarily a qualification to be considered a Greek hero or heroine. To us, the gods and heroes in the Greek myths were invented by poets and storytellers, but to the Greeks they were real people who lived, died, and in many cases transcended death as immortals.
The first section of the exhibition, "Heroes in Myth," presents objects depicting moments in the lives of four major figures. Helen is the standout and a good example of the contrast between the Greek idea of heroes and our own The beautiful Helen who launched a thousand ships and who supposedly, at least in some versions, started the Trojan War, ran off with Paris. When her husband Menelaus caught up with her after the defeat of Troy, he takes her back to Sparta where we are told at least in one story that the couple lived happily ever after. A terracotta bell-krater (a large open bowl used for mixing wine and water) of Menelaus and Helen at the sack of Troy tells it all. He's the angry husband about to slay his wife with a sword. She runs away from him. But overcome by her beauty,he relents and voila --- she becomes a popular Greek heroine.
Another main character in this first section is Herakles. As Jennifer Larson writes in the show's catalog, he was the "most emblematic" of Greek heroes. He battled centaurs, sea monsters, and had 67 sons and one daughter. In death he was considered an Olympian god who could bring victory and ward off evil. A first or second century AD Roman copy after a Hellenistic original depicts a handsome young Herakles wearing a lion skin on his head.
A bronze sculpture shows the aged heavily bearded Herakles, now an old man who according to the catalog advocated "drinking wine to ease life's difficulties, revealing a less noble side of the hero."
Aside from Helen and Herakles, the first section also focus on the wandering warrior Odysseus whose brainchild was the Trojan horse. He overcame many obstacles including the blinding of the one-eyed Cyclops Polyphemus. He loses all his comrades, but in the end makes it home to his faithful wife Penelope. Achilles, the fourth hero featured in this section, was another complex character, who chose glory and death rather than returning home.
The second section of this show is devoted to "Heroes in Cult" which expands on the notion that the Greek heroes survived after death as protectors, healers, or helpers and on occasion, dangerous characters who could harm humans. The final section, "Heroes as Role Models," explores how ancient Greek warriors, athletes, and others modeled their behavior after their heroes. Every age has its heroes, but here we have the Greek version, warts and all.
The exhibition catalog is a must for anyone interested in Greek history, myths, and visual arts. On view through January 3, 2011. The exhibition is in the Onassis Cultural Center on the lower level of the Olympic Tower at 645 Fifth Avenue; New York City. www.onassisusa.org