Many art exhibits stir up questions like, "Is this good art?" or "What was the artist trying to say?" but rarer is the show that inspires the more fundamental question "What is art?" The current Frist exhibit Heroes: Mortals and Myths in Ancient Greece inspires that most basic query, inviting the viewer to discard all preconceptions and experience art as simply the tether between man and myth.
From the entrance, Heroes appears to be a scientific display of vases, marble reliefs and gobs of wizened sculpture under glass — until you see "Aged Herakles" (Hercules), rendered in stone, no bigger than a lawn gnome. He's a weird ossified homunculus just oozing virile maturity, slouching in his lion's skin as if to begin his story with modesty. On a tiny coin, the infant Herakles is depicted strangling snakes. The hero is born with superhuman strength and volatile pride that inevitably tempts the wrath of the gods. This suggests that the Greeks saw innate ability as being tied inextricably to one's fate.
The illustrations that adorn the vases are of such fine line and bold detail they look as though they could have been drawn by Edward Gorey. They recount the epic and tragic deeds of kings, warriors, priestesses and monsters. The myths are not simple morality tales, however, and the line between hero and villain is ambiguous at best. Throughout the Trojan War both sides pray to Athena, and although Achilles is the star of the conflict, his selfishness casts him in the light of an antihero. Hector is easily the more noble and pure of heart.
It seems the ancient Greeks considered all who take a side in mortal conflict to be heroic. The righteousness of either side is revealed through the struggle itself. The gallant may grow prideful and fall from grace, just as the wicked may find their conscience. The portrayal of "Helen and Menelaos at the Sack of Troy" shows Helen finally facing the man she humiliated as the resulting war climaxes around them. Menelaos closes in on her only to drop his sword and reveal a Robert Crumb-sized erection. Menelaos' ultimate decision to spare Helen's life is a redeeming act, even though his rage is mostly confounded by her beauty and she may very well have preferred the sword.
The ancient Greeks worshipped the gods out of an intense fear that would dwarf the piety of modern "God-fearing Christians." These gods are not omniscient. In fact, they are gullible and prone to unbecoming temper tantrums. The Greeks hated the Olympians who plagued the mortal world with their insane whims, and placation was at the center of ritual sacrifice. The gods in turn hated mankind, for with mortality comes the elation of the moment, an experience bitterly coveted by the undying deities of the ancient world. From this tension between god and mortal, the hero emerges — one who would rather taste the venom of the Olympians than resign to humility. One who fears a quiet life more than death.
These works are as much inspiration as they are a warning to those who would challenge the order of the world. The most disturbing piece in the collection is a small bronze, "One of Odysseus' Men Transformed into a Pig." The intricate sculpture is in a fetal position with a hog's head and lingering human legs, and it's impossible not to sympathize with this guy who so obviously was not cut out for adventuring. The stone "Head of Polyphemos," the Cyclops that Odysseus blinded, looks as if it had been posed for. The great centered eye is utterly primeval, yet it brings to mind HAL 9000, the computer from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Our monsters have changed very little.
What this ancient art calls up most of all is the unquestioning recognition of magic. Maybe the older a work of art is, the greater its effect on the viewer's ancestral memory. More likely, the context of ancient Greece endows these treasures with a mystery hard-won through untold generations of preservation. Perhaps the biggest mystery is how very little we know of that context, the ancient Greeks' common history. So few plays remain. How literally did they interpret their own myths? The Greeks believed music evoked manifestations of the gods. They were pretty cool with depictions of sex of any kind. And whoever cut the exhibit's relief "Herakles at Rest" died a long time before Jesus was ever born, and we're still looking at his stuff. Over the centuries, big pieces of marble keep falling out of his sculpture and it just looks more and more magical.
At 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 25, Vanderbilt archaeologist Barbara Tsakirgis will present a free illustrated lecture examining the role of gods and heroes in the daily lives of ancient Greeks. On Friday and Saturday, Feb. 26-27, the Frist will present a Greek cooking class inspired by the exhibit, Art Bites: Heroic Food ($70 members, $80 nonmembers). Call 744-3247 for more information.
I hope Bonnie and Clyde is better than Mob City, which was - as far…
The only website you can call directly is 1-800-FLOWERS.com.
Not the first time Mario Lopez has been snubbed (see Kapowski, Kelly).
I was all like "how do you get the phone number for TMZ?!?!" you can't…
I think it's weird when speculation is wedged into an otherwise straightforward biography. I love…