BOSTON – “Wine, Poets and Performers” is the informal name of the cluster of the newly-renovated galleries of Greek Art at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts that opened this month.
The transformation, spearheaded by Christine Kondoleon, the George D. and Margo Behrakis Senior Curator of Greek and Roman Art at the MFA, was undertaken to make the art and life of the Ancient Greeks accessible to modern visitors.
Set in the George D. and Margo Behrakis Wing of Art of the Ancient World, the three galleries, “Homer and the Epics,” “Dionysus and the Symposium” and “Theater and Performance,” will present the MFA’s Geek collection in a thematic way for the first time.
It is more interesting that lining up vases, Kondoleon said, but dating and context is respected. “The mainly 5th and 6th century objects present Greece, Athens at a particular moment in its history and culture.”
“We have one of the best collections in the world illustrating Homer and the Greek theater,” she said, and the objects help capture meaning that is missing because so many texts are lost.
The look of galleries in museums is not dictated by their directors, rather, they reflect the uniqueness of the collection and the points of view of the curators.
Kondoleon emphasized she wanted the new displays to provide context, allowing visitors “to see how these vessels were used by real people in real life and what they tell us about their religious and commercial practices – how they made and distributed their wine, what they tell us about their poetry.”
“The Greeks,” she said, “experienced poetry through the medium of the symposium, the long hours of drinking and music amongst the educated men who laid down the cultural foundation for their era.”
Objects used at symposia are displayed and Dionysis, the god of wine – a popular figure in Ancient Greece – appears often among 230 pieces.
“Poetry is an overarching theme that ties all the spaces together,” Kondoleon said.
She agrees that there is a particularly powerful diachronic bond between Greeks and poetry. “We’ve produced a lot of good poets…Greeks really think in terms of rhyme and iambic pentameter, of making language rich in poetic terms.”
And the language allows a Greek to rhyme from morning to night.
Kondoleon told TNH that in addition to being showcases for the collection – she is thrilled the objects are finally getting their due – the galleries also constitute mini-seminar rooms for the students of the Boston area’s 60 colleges and universities that make it “the Athens of America.”
The museum uses iPads to amplify and supplement the stories the images on the vases tell about the society, and literary works.
There is also an extensive program of lectures Kondoleon will be presenting along with her colleague Phoebe Segal and other area and international scholars that are made possible by generous donations.
In addition to her appreciation of donors like the Behrakis family, which endowed her curatorial position and the Behrakis Wing, she is delighted by the support of non-Greeks, mainly Jewish Americans.
Kondoleon is a native New Yorker who now lives in Boston. Her own family just donated the money for the iconostasis of the new sanctuary of the Kimisis Church of the Hamptons.
She earned a PhD at Harvard and was an Onassis Fellow and tenured professor of Art History at Williams College. Her studies focused on Late Antiquity and Byzantine Art
and one of her goals is to establish and Byzantine gallery at the MFA.
Kondoleon also cares about contemporary Greek art and artists. She is excited about a new MFA exhibition called “Reverb” running through October 18 of works by young Greek artists responding to the crisis.