When in Rome...

WAG an­tiq­ui­ties ex­hi­bi­tion takes vis­i­tors back to an­cient civ­i­liza­tions

Winnipeg Free Press - Section E - - FRONT PAGE - KEVIN PROKOSH

THE in­con­spic­u­ous terra cotta vase just in­stalled at the Win­nipeg Art Gallery as part of the new tour­ing ex­hibit Olym­pus: The Greco-Ro­man Col­lec­tions of Ber­lin of­fers no hint of its glo­ri­ous sport­ing past.

Back in 450 BC Athens, the painted ves­sel, or am­phora, was awarded to the win­ner of the most pres­ti­gious event at the Pana­thenaic Games: the char­iot race.

“It was a prize like the Stan­ley Cup,” says An­dreas Scholl, direc­tor of clas­si­cal an­tiq­ui­ties of the na­tional mu­se­ums in Ber­lin, where the Olym­pus ex­hibit orig­i­nated.

In front of a rau­cous crowd, the vic­to­ri­ous char­i­o­teer was pre­sented with an am­phora full of sa­cred and valu­able olive oil. Painted on one side of the red­dish-or­ange con­tainer was Athena, the city god­dess; on the other, a de­pic­tion of a black-fig­ured char­iot rider and his two horses in full gal­lop. Th­ese tro­phies were found all over the Mediter­ranean re­gion and the one on dis­play at the gallery was dis­cov­ered in Benghazi, Libya.

The am­phora is one of the 160 an­cient trea­sures drawn from the An­tiken­samm­lung der Staatlichen Museen zu Ber­lin, home to one of the most im­por­tant col­lec­tions of Greek and Ro­man art in the world. The priceless mar­ble stat­ues and re­liefs, bronze stat­uettes, vases and jew­elry are just the tip of the ice­berg of art­work kept in its vast store­rooms.

“This is the rea­son we can eas­ily cre­ate and lend an ex­hi­bi­tion as large as this one to take abroad,” says Scholl, who ar­rived in Win­nipeg Mon­day and will be giv­ing sev­eral lec­tures dur­ing the open­ing week­end of Olym­pus. “We don’t do this very much. This is ac­tu­ally the largest tem­po­rary ex­hi­bi­tion we ever sent abroad.”

It is the first time that Olym­pus is on dis­play in North Amer­ica; the only stops are at the Musée de la civil­i­sa­tion in Que­bec City and the WAG. It is also rare to see a ma­jor an­tiq­ui­ties show in Win­nipeg, the last one be­ing The Trea­sures of Tu­tankhamun, which was pre­sented at the Man­i­toba leg­is­la­ture in 1964, seven years be­fore the WAG opened its dis­tinc­tive home on Me­mo­rial Boule­vard.

That Olym­pus is here is due to WAG direc­tor Stephen Bo­rys be­ing in the right place at the right time. He was vis­it­ing Ber­lin in 2013, scout­ing mu­seum de­signs for the gallery’s Inuit Art Cen­tre project, when he learned about plans for a Greek and Ro­man an­tiq­ui­ties show in Que­bec City. He was able to ne­go­ti­ate hav­ing the WAG added to the Olym­pus itin­er­ary for the price of restor­ing a cou­ple of largescale re­liefs.

“We don’t charge loan fees,” says Scholl. “For all our work, we want to see a mod­est, very mod­est re­turn — that is a fi­nan­cial con­tri­bu­tion to­wards restora­tions.”

Th­ese ex­hibits are crowd-pleasers — sev­eral an­tiq­ui­ties ex­hibits typ­i­cally ap­pear on the an­nual Top 10 list of best-at­tended art shows.

“The public still has a fas­ci­na­tion with an­cient civ­i­liza­tions,” Bo­rys says. “Peo­ple un­der­stand the rar­ity and age of th­ese ob­jects. Stand­ing be­tween you and a bust of Zeus is 25 cen­turies. You re­al­ized it was carved when there were all th­ese gods and god­desses.”

The in­flu­ence of the Greeks is still ev­i­dent to­day — whether in pop cul­ture, through the best­selling book se­ries Percy Jack­son and the Olympians and big-bud­get movies such Troy, or in ar­chi­tec­ture, theatre and medicine. To­day’s body-beau­ti­ful cul­ture is rooted in Greek sculp­tures, in which the hu­man form was de­picted in an ide­al­ized state.

“It’s so ob­vi­ous, even in a city like Win­nipeg,” says Scholl. “The leg­is­la­ture is a mar­vel­lous ex­am­ple of Greek clas­si­cal ar­chi­tec­ture. This ar­chi­tec­ture is meant to re­fer to the fact that democ­racy is a Greek in­ven­tion. For a par­lia­ment build­ing, there could be no bet­ter way to ex­press that.”

Cov­er­ing the out­door wall of the WAG is a gi­gan­tic ban­ner with the im­age of the flaw­less mar­ble face of Hera, the queen of the gods. She bears the dig­ni­fied, blank-eyed, un­var­nished look the public as­so­ciates with this kind of art.

What’s star­tling to learn is that al­most all the stat­ues were at one time painted. The bright colours have faded and be­come weath­ered af­ter thou­sands of years, leav­ing that familiar, plain old white.

“We have thou­sands of proofs they were brightly painted,” Scholl says. “Gold was ap­plied; so was sil­ver. Of­ten the eyes were inset with glass or semi­precious stones. Even the Parthenon was coloured once.”

Olym­pus cov­ers 10,000 square feet of gallery space, in­clud­ing one im­pres­sive room that repli­cates the ro­tunda of the gods from Ber­lin’s Altes Mu­seum.

In the in­tro­duc­tory gallery, pa­trons will be wel­comed by three in­di­vid­ual pieces, all of which are crit­i­cally im­por­tant to the show’s theme of Olympian gods, their per­son­al­i­ties and at­tributes. Eyes will first be drawn to the huge mar­ble foot, all that’s left of a colos­sal statue of a fe­male god­dess circa 150-50 BC. It’s the largest ob­ject in the show.

“She would have been nine me­tres high, or 30 feet,” says Bo­rys. “I put it in the first gallery to show off one thing — the sense of scale with Greek art. It also gives us the idea of what we call the frag­ment.”

There is no work on dis­play that is un­touched, that doesn’t bear some kind of im­per­fec­tion caused by man or time. The ob­vi­ous ex­treme is a statue that has been re­duced to a foot.

“It gives peo­ple an ap­pre­ci­a­tion that it was part of a much larger sculp­ture and was part of a civ­i­liza­tion that wor­shipped a whole group of deities,” he says.

The foot shares the space with an­other terra cotta vase, on which is painted a gath­er­ing-of-the-gods scene, and a life-size bust of Zeus.

“It’s one of the most high-qual­ity mar­bles from Greece, out­side of Athens, re­mark­ably in­tact,” Bo­rys says.

Many gallery vis­i­tors will be drawn to the Ber­lin Dancer, whose head­less body is im­mor­tal­ized in a swirling mo­tion. The folds in her dress del­i­cately em­pha­size her un­re­strained move­ment.

“It’s the most valu­able piece,” says Scholl, who adds that the Ber­lin mu­se­ums boast 4,400 stone and bronze sculp­tures. “In our world-class col­lec­tion, this is a piece among the 10 best sculp­tures we have.”

‘Peo­ple un­der­stand the rar­ity and age of th­ese ob­jects. Stand­ing be­tween you and a bust of Zeus is 25 cen­turies’


Above, a head­less, arm­less torso. Right, a bust of a Greek god.

An­dreas Scholl (left), direc­tor of clas­si­cal an­tiq­ui­ties of the na­tional mu­se­ums in Ber­lin, and WAG CEO Stephen Bo­rys with ‘the Ber­lin Dancer’ sculp­ture.


A vase that was once a prize for cham­pion char­iot driv­ers is part of the WAG ex­hi­bi­tion.

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