Bronze Corinthian helmet (circa 700-500 BCE) from
the “Heroes” exhibition at the Onassis Cultural Center in New York
Heroes: Mortals and Myths in Ancient Greece
Onassis Cultural Center
645 Fifth Avenue, New York
Oct. 5 2010 – Jan. 3, 2011
Greek ideas are so much a part of who we think we are that we hardly ever think about them, and if we do, it’s probably the idea of democracy, or maybe the classical ideal of balance and proportion. But other aspects of the Greeks have riven deep into our psyches. The first plays in the western canon—despite the fact that the Greeks were Eastern—and the stories of larger-than-life figures like Herakles, Odysseus, Achilles and Helen have been told and retold in epic and lyric poems, novels, opera, and film for millennia.
This show at the Onassis Cultural Center, which is one of New York’s best kept secrets (I discovered it when I was checking my emails at Kinko’s two years ago), wisely concentrates not on ideas, but on representations of the seminal figures in these stories, which have haunted so much of our imaginative life: impossible labors, shipwreck, betrayal, longing, transformation, the wine dark sea.
The Onassis’ small galleries, with their ultra-low lighting, make everything look mysterious. A free standing bust of Odysseus, not in his heroic aspect, but in a fisherman’s cap, two mural-sized photographs of ruins, which look like small partially unearthed hilltops with stone fragments, a bronze Corinthian helmet , a Pegasos, also of bronze, and of course wonderful examples of classic Attic black-figure and red-figure vases with their narratives incised. Odysseus Escaping From the Cave of Polyphemos (circa 510 BCE), Herakles and Triton (circa 530-520 BCE), Helen and Meneleos at the Sack of Troy (440-430 BCE)—deeds done in the face of danger, and art, with its concomittant artifice, is always the best and most permanent escape (ars longa, vita brevis) out of the labyrinth, or chaos, of our daily lives.
Art’s always somehow about memory, and the collective memory stored here is a treasure trove. Haunted. Present. The line from the poets of the classic age like Sophocles and Euripedes to our much nearer but equally haunted poets Seferis, Elytis, Cavafis and Christianopoulos, like these artworks remains unbroken, always true. And the most touching? The elegant and very modern—it leaves so much out—4th century BCE pentalic marble: Hero with a Sunken Ship. One man alone, above—eternity.
©2010 Michael McDonagh