Hellenic-American Cultural Foundation Lecture: Every Vase Has a Tale to Tell

NEW YORK – The people who heard Joan R. Mertens speak “On the Art of Interpreting Greek Vases” at the lecture presented by the HellenicAmerican Cultural Foundation (HACF)will pay more attention to the details the next time they encounter a Grecian urn  – “in the flesh” as she said, at places like the Metropolitan Museum of Art,  on its website, Metmuseum.org or in photos.

The HACF’s president, attorney Nicholas Kourides, thanked the Foundation’s Board for its work and support, including the two organizers of the event, John Vasily and Robert Shaw, the Foundation’s vice chairman, who introduced the speaker.

Martens works at the Greek and Roman Department of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and her book “How to Read Greek Vases” inspired HACF to invite her to speak after Kourides and Shaw read about it in the New York Times Book Review.

Martens’ opening words caused some muscles to tense, but after the informative and entertaining talk, the guests wanted to learn more.

“Greek vases are widely considered a forbidding subject,” Martens said “because when you see them in a museum there tend to be so many of them and they all look the same.”

People have told her “Greek vases remind them of Vivaldi’s music because he wrote the same concerto over 500 times, however it’s all a matter of how you look, and how you listen,” she explained.

By narrowing the focus of a large field – Greek created vases for many centuries in a variety of local styles from Southern Italy and Sicily to Asia Minor- she was able during a brief lecture and the Q & A that followed to suggest numerous perspectives for observing them, and the seven large screens provide each guest with close-ups of what she was talking about.

She discussed objects made from 600 to 400 century B.C. in made in Athens because the art was most developed and the artists, whom she later explained were not accorded high social status despite their brilliance  –  were most accomplished.

It is important to bear in mind that the objects were not meant to be admired on display, not because the concept the concept of fines arts did not yet exist – art was admired by the Greeks and Martens noted that civic buildings were adorned by large scale paintings that depicted the same scenes and themes of the urns – but because the latter were utilitarian in nature – many were vessels for wine and oil used for various purposes.

The scenes and people they depicted often reflected their functions, for example, vessels related to burials contained images from the stories of great deaths in history and mythology, and wedding objects portrayed scenes for marriages.

Martens provided a valuable description of differences between red figure and black figure vases – in the former the natural color of the clay formed the bodies of the people, and in the latter the surfaces of the bodies were glazed.

The images on the urns also provide valuable evidence for the everyday lives of the ancients since they people were depicted wearing contemporary clothing and using the objects of the artists’ time.

When there is doubt about the use of the objects, symbols provide important clues. On the neck of one vase, palmettes, which appear often on Athenian grave steles,  “foreshadow an unhappy end” for the person depicted.

One of the most fascinating parts of the presentation dealt with ancient Greek symposia, drinking parties that included intellectual discussions. The kraters in which the wine was mixed with water are now treasured art works.

The ratio was a vital matter, reflecting the nature of the discussion: the more serious the topic, the stronger the blend – presumably to keep the discussion friendly.

Mythological scenes were the most popular, but our own neighbors sometimes imitate Greek vases. After she reminded of the story of Herakles, whose twin brother was of a different father (the hero’s was Zeus, his sibling’s father was a mortal) Martens conveyed the “ripped from the headlines” story of a paternity suit that proved a woman’s twins were conceived by two different men.

It was a testament to the continuing and universal appeal of the creations of Classical Greece – which is one of the Foundation’s messages – that guests included the diplomatic corps of Peru, Mexico, Brazil, and Israel.

In its fourth year, the Foundation has hosted 18 events. Kourides called Shaw, “one of our thought leaders”  who helps it fulfill its mission of promoting “high quality and relevant educational and cultural programs for persons interested in the history and legacy of Greece… and to engage the community to rediscover the importance of Greek contributions.”

Kourides was pleased to announce some upcoming events, such as a concert at Merkin Hall on November 5 by the Olympic Trio, which he called “a young but terrific” ensemble.

In October the Foundation will co-sponsor the New York Greek Film Festival, whose director, arrived just a bit too late to hear himself called “the incomparable Jimmy DeMetro…who built the festival from scratch and which has become part of the fabric of New York City.”

Inkwell Solutions, the Manhattan printing house responsible for the exceptional programs of HACF events, was praised by Kourides for helping develop the organization’s brand and reputation for quality. and he thanked principals Bob Scott and Diane Wheaton.

Kourides also thanked the event’s sponsors, including the law firm of Debevoise & Plimpton which offered its conference room with a spectacular view  35 stories above Midtown Manhattan; Vasily is a partner at the firm.



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