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Saturday, June 01, 2002

Arts & Letters

The Greek Classic: Idea Or Reality

The Greek Classic: Idea Or Reality (Die Griechische Klassik: Idee oder Wirklichkeit), Martin Gropius Bau, Berlin, March 1-June 2, 2002, and Kunst und Austellunghalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, Bonn, July 12-October 13, 2002.

This is a stupendous show, with more than 600 objects from well over 100 museums and collections throughout the world. It is an unusual exhibition in many ways. For instance, there are items of ancient art that rarely travel, such as the marble statue of the male youth from the remote island of Motya off the southern coast of Sicily. There is also a provocative contextual breadth in the installation of pieces from cultures contemporaneous with Greek antiquity. In addition, and in order to elaborate on the expansion and adaptation of the so-called classical tradition, the curators have gone far afield, acquiring items such as a model and plans made by Thomas Jefferson for a house at Monticello and for the University of Virginia at Charlottesville. Nothing, however, is perhaps more provocative and yet entirely fitting than the monitor in the last room showing segments from Olympia, Leni Riefenstahl’s 1936 documentary of the Olympic games in Berlin. One can spend several hours at this show, for it requires as much concentration and thought as actual time spent examining the exhibits. Thus, it is a great pity that the organizers were not able to find the funds to make an English-language version of the catalogue so that the great number of intelligent and thoughtful essays written for it could more easily reach the international audience that they deserve. Nonetheless, at 25 euros, the catalogue is well worth the price simply for the photographs.

Viewers who do not know German are advised to get headphones, which offer commentary in French and English. While the exhibition captions are in German only, on the wall of every room is an English translation of a general curatorial statement of purpose of the items displayed. This is obviously helpful in understanding the exhibits, yet at times it can be irksome in overfocusing the viewer’s attention. The exhibition in Berlin fills the first floor of the Martin Gropius Bau. A series of rooms follow the exterior wall of the building, enclosing in the middle a very large open court with a glass ceiling that, in turn, has a gallery running around its edge. The ensemble of spaces resembles nothing so much as an ancient Roman house on a very grand scale. Martin Gropius was the uncle of Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus and later dean of the school of architecture at Harvard University, where he was influential in American architecture for many years. Both uncle and nephew had very strong reactions to classical antiquity and its reformulation, although for entirely different reasons.

The objects in the central court into which the museum visitor instinctively enters are an excellent means to stimulate the thoughts with which the exhibition concerns itself. I will mention a few. In the very center and most dramatically is a statue of the female goddess Victory mounted on a plinth some 40 feet above the floor. Here is the sculpture as it was intended to be viewed by the ancients, yet as no modern would conceive of presenting it since, not only is the view distorted, but the viewer cannot master the sculpture’s details. This is a remarkable demonstration of one of the fundamental complications with which the exhibition deals. To make it all the more dramatic, there is a modern, smallish version of plinth and statue, perhaps two feet high overall, that allows the viewer literally to “capture” the totality.

In another part of the court is the statue from Motya, which shows in its details many perplexing variations of its type. It seems somehow to be a cross between a nude kouros and The Charioteer at Delphi. The weight of the body, however, is entirely on one leg, giving an exaggerated curve to the line of the buttocks and the height of the left hip, something made more revealing by the very close-fitting pleated diaphanous gown covering the body, which in turn exaggerates the boy’s genitals. The treatment is odd and thought by many to be a Carthaginian idea of a Greek statue.

Across the court is the well-known statue group of Harmodios and Aristogeiton, the tyrannicides, a sculptural example of fifth-century BCE Athenian idealized and realistic body action. These marble pieces are second-century CE copies of the fifth-century BCE bronzes that were set up in the Athenian agora – the first instance, as the catalogue notes, of a non-religious, political subject without cult significance. From another perspective, the Harmodios and Aristogeiton group can be considered an abstraction and emotive simplification of a complicated, unruly, negotiated process that evolved into what the Athenians called “democracy,” yet another play on idea, reality, and classic. Still further, one may note that not only are the copies of a different material but they have undergone extensive repairs and renovations, all of which are the application of later intelligences to the problem of what “really” was the reality. Furthermore, the two are set at eye level without their plinths, thus making them more “real” or “realistic” than they were intended to be.

These three pieces – the one so elevated as to be recognized only as a concept, the second with such strange details as to be difficult to “read” in the sense Gombrich meant it, and the last a marble copy of masculine action already idealized in its original bronze form, which seems to be physically present with the viewer – already go far to set the terms for reality, idea, and the “classic” with which the show deals. Amplifying these are statues ranged along a nearby gallery; some are plaster casts, some are Roman copies of Greek originals, all showing varying degrees of separation in technique and esthetic from what is presumed to be the Greek originals of the fifth century BCE. This sample will suggest how much there is to see and contemplate from so many perspectives as the viewer proceeds through the exhibition.

The curators have established themes for the exhibition galleries. In their English translation, they are: Athens and the World in Fifth-Century BCE Greece; Politics and the Public Domain; Life through Images and Living with Images; Proportion, Measure, Grandeur (the German “Masz, Vermessung, Akribie und Grösze” is more precise); The Basis of Classical Culture; Three Ways to the Classic; Classical Revival in the Roman Empire; and Renaissances and Classicisms under the Greek Sky. It may be the Greek sky, but, as is abundantly clear, antiquity is really to be represented by the Athenian achievement. That in itself is a natural and honest starting-point.

Some of these categories are more successful than others. The gallery with objects from cultures contemporary with fifth-century BCE Athens – some from as far away as China and Japan – did not make much of a point, except to remind viewers that what is called the “classic” exists in other complex and evolved cultures. It is probably a salutary reminder, perhaps for Germans particularly, imbued as they may be with the notion of the superiority of Greek classicism, but the inclusion seems more trendy than anything else. Ideas are difficult to convey through visuals, as the galleries given over to explaining Athenian democracy make clear.

The experience of Athenian democracy is represented by a fragment of the kleroterion by which Athenian males were elected by lot to various offices, and it is balanced by marble busts of Pericles and others who won popular election to the office of general. These illustrate the peculiar Athenian idea of pure democracy as a balance between universal selection to civic office and deliberate election of 10 men with considerable executive power. Other vase paintings and sculptures emphasize the dominance of native-born Athenian males. Their bonding, if not outright homoeroticism, was the basis for a democracy that excluded women, foreigners, and relied on slavery, not to mention tribute exacted from often reluctant Delian League members that went toward the grand architectural program of the city.

Nothing is more difficult than to explain an idea and a process – that is, democracy in Athens – when what are available are only visuals. Documentary television founders on the shoals of this problem all the time, and there is probably no way out. Still, the visuals stress the emphatically masculine and bonded nature of the political process. Harmodios and Aristogeiton, after all, were not only males – as the naked statues make abundantly clear – they were lovers as well. One can argue that, for the Athenians, the statuary demonstrates balance and harmony, proportion. This imposition of the static onto the democratic process is not unlike the popular dramatic festival of tragedy, a narrative that, by insisting upon doom and inevitability, is essentially repressive and static. Thus, the art seems to deny the reality; the democratic process is, after all, so constantly fluid, tension-filled, and uncertain of outcome. The galleries seem to ask us to question our understanding of Athenian democracy, whether it is deeper than a notion of idealized males banding together, of balance, for the visuals cannot really convey to us the exploitation or repression or negotiation that were essential to this democracy. Another category that did not seem to advance the overarching concept was the exposition of the material means for sustaining the culture, a kind of survey of farming, mining, metalworking, ceramics, and all the various forms of rudimentary technology. The most interesting presentation here was the photographs showing a contemporary group of students making a bronze statue.

“Life through Images and Living with Images” is an excellent survey of the tension between image and reality in everyday life, a subject that will resonate with every modern viewer. Just as the ancient Athenian was confronted everywhere with images of idealized bodies and behaviors in vase painting and sculpture, to take two examples, so contemporary citizens of industrialized nations take their cues for behavior and body definition from advertising displays, television, and cinema. We moderns imagine the ancient Greeks to have been perfectly shaped, always in the nude, always capable of elegant and restrained body gesture. That is what their art tells us. What, one wonders, were the thoughts of the ancient male or female who was ungainly, overweight, or aging, just to mention the obvious? Had they problems, as modern sociologists identify them among contemporary persons who are unable to live up to and thus live with the visuals of modern human perfection? This room serves as an admonition to doubt that we really know all that much about ancient Realien.

“Proportion, Measure, and Grandeur” takes up the subtle difference achieved in a copy, and thus introduces the viewer to the theories of Winckelmann, who more or less created art history as a discipline. He based his theories on Roman copies of Greek originals, and, when the latter became more generally available, it became clear that his precise definition of ancient Greek art derived from the esthetics of the copyists rather than from those of the originals. This latter-day reflection has encouraged art historians to consider the copy as a work of art that is valid in itself. The curators of this show have added the phenomenon of the plaster cast, which renders yet another kind of surface.

The copy and the plaster cast are in some sense abstractions of the ancient Greek original, and it is interesting to see the same esthetic at play in the sculpture of Canova, whose work is also represented here. In that sense, these are precursors of modernism. Other aspects of measurement have to do with the measure and proportion of the human body, particularly demonstrated in the work of Polykleitos. The curators have brought together items that reveal how the human body was perceived by the ancient Greeks as a rational and esthetic composite of harmonious parts that form the basis for the very idea of measurement, as indeed exist in the English unit of measurement, the foot. A marble relief from the Ashmolean Museum, showing a male with outstretched arm inside the pediment of a temple, reflects the ancient Greek idea of the harmonious relationship between the construction of the body and the rational and harmonious parts of a building. It is the very antithesis of the modern idea of the individual as flawed and idiosyncratic, although maybe the contemporary obsession with the perfectly sculpted body to be realized at the gym shares some of the ancient concerns.

Another aspect of measure has to do with city planning, especially the grid plan for the ancient city of Priene. It is extraordinary when one is on the site of that city, well enough preserved to follow the street plan, to realize that, like the imposition of a grid in San Francisco, there is no allowance for the natural topography of the site. Streets climb up and down and cut across, all of this so unlike, say, the modern city of Catania, where the streets tend to circle the hills, outlining and using them rather than defying them. Priene is the imposition of the rational process in denial of nature. It is also suggested that the grid system emphasized democracy and equality, but the arbitrary denial of the accident of landscape seems to me to be a more powerful motive. Rationalism over nature is what the grid system is all about, and one is reminded that Socrates boasted of almost never leaving the city walls of Athens in his lifetime to go into the countryside.

The remaining galleries of the exhibition display the explosion out from Athens of this extraordinary culture, first to Macedonia and the north, then westward to the Etruscans and to the people of southern Italy and Sicily. Pottery fragments on view document the spread and growth of that peculiarly Athenian institution, tragic drama. Certainly for Athens of the fifth century BCE, tragic drama was the most important repository of the community’s ideology, as well as the vehicle for questioning and testing ideas. The presence of theaters throughout the Mediterranean world suggests the spread of Athenian ideology, the distances of this expansion no doubt contributing to the simplification and abstraction of the message of the drama, no different from the process of copying sculpture.

What is left is the diffusion of the Greek ideal throughout the world. The Roman empire was the immediate agent. The Augustan era, it is suggested, was the earliest one in history of which the concept of “classicism” was a distinctive feature. There are some marvelous Roman pieces on display from this period. The strong relief from the Berlin Antikensammlung depicting Apollo, Leto, and Artemis, together with the spirit of Victory at sacrifice, on which the temple of Victory on the Palatine as well as the palace of Augustus are depicted, gives the traditional or “classic” scene a definite Roman ambience. One gallery devoted to marble busts is more noteworthy for quotations from Cicero’s letters and from a passage of Cassius Dio. The busts may indicate how living persons were made classic, but the quotations amply demonstrate how the city of Athens was becoming an idea and a legend.

The curators can only race over the intervening centuries so as to get to some more immediately recognizable themes. One misses a larger scope for the Twenties; suggestive but minimal displays of Picasso and Art Deco are not enough. For Americans, there is Thomas Jefferson, whose enthusiasm for Palladio’s classicism brought the architecture of antiquity to the New World. The period of the Greek Revival, which seems to have been inspired by the idea that a new chapter in human liberty was about to commence (as long as there were enough slaves to produce crops), produced some grandly porticoed plantation houses in the Deep South, as well as some more modest Protestant churches in the North. In Germany, there was Schinkel, whose buildings for Berlin remain the strong cue in more recent architecture. (Witness the government buildings going up north of the Reichstag, modern, colossal, austere, classical. Even the GDR senate building, which looks more like a Fifties California motel than anything else, is far more severely classical, in a kind of stripped-down Mies van der Rohe mode, than the ostentatious Baroque Hohenzollern palace that was dynamited to give it space.)

In the catalogue, Ekkehart Krippendorff quotes Eugen Kogon (page 747) in turn quoting someone he does not name who, in 1939, expressed a wish for a Germany on the model of the Hellenistic city-states, a small aristocracy, a large class of slave laborers, and thus the opportunity for the growth of culture. That the Third Reich saw itself as a revival of the “Classic” seems clear enough; even years earlier, Hitler had remarked in Mein Kampf on the close tie between Germany and Greece. One has only to read Werner Jaeger’s three-volume study of classical Greece, Paideia, to see how the ideals of an elite, of ethnic purity, of a striving for transcendent good, of a non-political allegiance to state – all the rich mess of philosophical porridge that made up the “dritte Humanismus” – could be put to service by the National Socialists. It played just as well in small-town bourgeois Episcopalian America, where they had never heard of the Greeks. The point is that you can take almost any idea and attach it to antiquity. Like the Bible, it means everything and nothing.

Leni Riefenstahl made a brilliant film of the 1936 Olympics. In it, she filmed the exotic relay race that brought the flame from Olympia to Berlin. This, we learn from the catalogue, was the first time that such a stunt was performed, the idea of a publicist working for the Nazi government, a way of bringing Greece to Germany. Now it is a standard ritual of the Olympic games. The film is a glorious devotion to beautiful bodies in action. One might think that just because Hitler was enraged that Jesse Owens won a gold medal, Riefenstahl herself might have thought that such a triumph sullied the classic purity of the event. In fact, Riefenstahl went on in later life to film the Kau people in Africa. There is a wonderful picture of her in later years – short, blonde, tough, and determined – leading by the hand a tall, lanky, perfectly proportioned, ever-so-black, naked young male, grandly walking, grandly displaying himself. One realizes, gazing at the photo, that this African kouros is the classic, the ideal, the Wirklichkeit.

Charles Rowan Beye is distinguished professor emeritus of classics at the City University of New York, a contributing editor to, and author, most recently, of Odysseus: A Life.
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