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Seeing Pergamon, Hellenistic Kingdoms 

Pergamon and the Hellenistic Kingdoms of the Ancient World opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MMA) on April 18 and runs through July 17.

The exhibition covers the art and artistry of the Hellenistic era, the time period after the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC until the suicide of the Egyptian queen Kleopatra VII (the famous “Cleopatra”), in 30 BC. Hellenistic art, once dismissed as decadent, has recently received more attention from scholars and archaeologists excavating Hellenistic sites.

The reevaluation of artwork that remained relevant and influential across the Roam Empire for more than 300 years is long overdue.

The artifacts on view provide exquisite examples of the scope of Hellenistic art, from intricate jewelry and mosaics to lifelike portrait busts and large-scale statues, the attention to detail is remarkable. The wealthy elites of the time commissioned works of beauty to decorate their homes.

Skilled artisans crafted glasses, ceramics, and other everyday objects influenced by the Classical Greek design and Eastern cultures that Alexander’s conquests brought together.

Clean lines and elaborate decoration both found expression in Hellenistic art, demonstrating the skill of artisans in workshops across the Hellenistic world.

The exhibition brings a forgotten, or rather neglected, era to life. The striking bronze portrait bust of Ptolemy II Philadelphus whose extensive royal patronage helped establish Alexandria with its lighthouse, museum, and library as one of the greatest cities in the Hellenistic world, seems about to speak to you, as one museum-goer suggested.

Busts of Epikouros, Antisthenes, and Karneades, three leading Athenian philosophers whose writings were studied by Pergamene intellectuals offers a glimpse into past and into the philosophical ideas that captivated the minds of the people.

The survival of many of the artifacts in the exhibition is due to the Romans collecting Hellenistic art around the 1st century BC. The demand at that time for Greek art, mostly from the workshops in Athens, was so high, Rome soon became a new center for Hellenistic art with Greek craftsmen migrating there and establishing a thriving art market.

Artisans in workshops in Rhodes, Kos, and Asia Minor also produced fine works of art for export throughout the Roman Empire. Some of the artifacts on display were preserved under the ash that covered Pompeii and Herculaneum in the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD and then excavated in 18th Century.

Others were pulled from the sea floor in underwater excavations of ancient shipwrecks including the famous Antikythera shipwreck. Video of recent underwater excavations at the Antikythera site is also on display in the exhibition.

With works from the MMA’s own collection and from museums in Athens, Thessaloniki, Kalymnos, Naples, the Vatican, Berlin, Paris, Morocco, and Tunisia, the exhibition provides a unique opportunity to view the art of Pergamon and the Hellenistic kingdoms in one location that would otherwise require a lifetime of travel to accomplish. One enthusiastic art-lover observed, this exhibition is “not to be missed.”

Those interested in attending the exhibition are advised to visit during the week to avoid the weekend crowds. Visitors from around the world are flocking to see the Hellenistic art on display.

One couple from China remarked on the wonderful artifacts, the impressive sculptures in the round inviting the viewer to see the work from all angles, and how they had not learned about Greek and Roman mythology or much at all about Western culture in school, but now travel extensively just to view the art inspired by Greece and its culture.

They were particularly fascinated by the fact that there are, “so many different versions of the myths.” Tourists from France, Spain, and across the United States all expressed their admiration for Hellenistic art. One Greek-American couple noted that they had seen a few of the works in Athens, but would have had to travel to Berlin to see much of the art from Pergamon. One-third of all the artwork in the exhibition is from the Pergamon Museum in Berlin.

Essential to our understanding of the legacy of Hellenistic art is the realization that there were no classical models for whole areas of Greek imagery during the Augustan period of Rome, only the Hellenistic ones were available, especially for representations of Dionysos and his followers, the Bacchantes, and the nude Aphrodite.

For representations of battles, sculptors relied on the royal Attalid monuments with the Hellenistic models influencing Imperial Roman art for centuries. The rediscovery of Hellenistic art also inspired later artistic movements during the Renaissance and Baroque era.

Part of the exhibition’s related programming, a two-day symposium, Art of the Hellenistic Kingdoms: From Pergamon to Rome, held on May 4 and 5, offered a more in-depth look at the legacy of Hellenistic art. Renowned scholars from across the globe presented new scholarship on the art history and archeology of the Hellenistic era.

On the first day of the symposium, The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Director and CEO Thomas P. Campbell offered his welcoming remarks followed by the introduction to the event by Dorothee Dzwonnek, Secretary General, Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) and Carlos A. Picon, Curator in Charge, Department of Greek and Roman Art at The Met.

Among the scholars, Andreas Scholl, Director, Collection of Classical Antiquities, The National Museums in Berlin, Germany presented Monumental — Impressive — Unique: Hellenistic Art and Architecture in the Restored Pergamon Museum.

Kiki Karoglou, Assistant Curator, Department of Greek and Roman Art, at The Met offered her work on An Early Hellenistic Votive Statuette in The Met: Alexander-Dionysos Melanaigis, Olga Palagia, Professor of Classical Archaeology, National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, Greece presented Pergamene Reflections in the Sanctuary of Diana at Nemi.

The second day of the symposium focused on the decorative arts of the Hellenistic kingdoms. Christine Kondoleon, George and Margo Behrakis Senior Curator of Greek and Roman Art, Department of Art of the Ancient World, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, presented Poets, Performers, and Riddles in Hellenistic Mosaics.

Accompanying the exhibition, the gift shop offers souvenirs including books, scarves, statues, and hand-hammered gold jewelry designed by Fotini Liami from Thessaloniki.

The catalog of the exhibition, Pergamon and the Hellenistic Kingdoms of the Ancient World by Carlos A. Picon, Curator in Charge, and Sean Hemingway, Curator in the MMA’s Department of Greek and Roman Art, is also available.

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