Thoughts on A World of Emotions at the Onassis Cultural Center

NEW YORK – A World of Emotions, the new exhibition at the Onassis Cultural Center in Midtown Manhattan, brings to life the emotions of the people of Ancient Greece, and prompts questions about how we express, control, manipulate, or simulate feelings in our own society.

The fact that these emotions are so eloquent and carved from stone a couple of thousand years old is a testament to the constancy of human nature and the unparalleled skill of ancient artists who captured such dramatic moments for all time. The raw emotions and the drives of those ancient people are not so far from us as we would like to think. The blind rage, unbridled attraction, thwarted desire, and devastating grief are not new and though we might hope that the veneer of civilization has polished away humanity’s rough edges, we have only to glance at the news to see how much we share with our ancestors in terms of emotion.

A World of Emotions brings together more than 130 masterpieces from some of the world’s leading museums—including the Acropolis Museum, Athens; the National Archaeological Museum, Athens; the Musee du Louvre (Department of Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities), Paris; the British Museum, London; and the Musei Vaticani, Vatican City. It would take years to visit each museum to see the works assembled at the Onassis Center in this not-to-be-missed exhibition.

The distinguished curators- Angelos Chaniotis, Professor of Ancient History and Classics, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton; Nikolaos Kaltsas, Director Emeritus, National Archaeological Museum, Athens; and Ioannis Mylonopoulos, Associate Professor of Ancient Greek Art and Archaeology, Columbia University, have done a tremendous job in this thoughtful, unvarnished exploration of emotions in ancient Greece. As Chaniotis noted during a tour of the exhibition, the emotions grow progressively darker as you move through the gallery, and even the paint color on the walls darkens to emphasize that darkness. Mylonopoulos spoke about the powerful depictions of Medea in vase paintings on display, noting that if we look closely enough at the fine details, the curve of an eyebrow or smile shows a great deal.

A groundbreaking exhibition, A World of Emotions features vase paintings, sculpture (ranging from life-size statues from the Acropolis to relief carvings from cemeteries), theatrical masks, amulets, coins, and votive offerings, among other artifacts from the early 7th century BC (the traditional date of the Iliad) to the late 2nd century AD. Many are on view in the United States for the first time, and some are on view for the first time outside Greece. Together, these objects provide a timely opportunity to think about the role of feelings in our own personal, social, and political lives, while helping to advance the relatively new field of the history of emotions.

Among the highlights of the exhibition are a small sculpture of a satyr holding his baby satyr, a carbon copy of his father down to the bald head, and the two life-size marble headsof Achilles and Penthesilea, experiencing terrible tragedy. Fighting on opposite sides in the Trojan War, Achilles slew the Amazon warrior-queen, but in the split second before she died, her helmet fell away, their eyes met, and it was love at first sight, plus instant, devastating sorrow.

The inscription on a marble stele about the death of Zoe, a young woman who died in childbirth along with her baby is among the most poignant works dealing with grief in the exhibition. Also haunting, the relief sculpture of a sweet child playing with a dog that happens to be a tombstone.

The spring season at the Onassis Cultural Center New York is dedicated to the theme of emotions to accompany the exhibition with a cross-disciplinary constellation of other artworks, programs, and events. As the New York Times reported, “The Onassis Cultural Center itself tends to stir an emotion: gratitude. It’s some kind of gift outright. Tucked away below street level in the Olympic Tower — you have to know it’s there to find it — and charging no admission, it brings in top-shelf art from Greece, supplemented by choice international loans.”

More information is available at onassisusa.org.


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