Tucked away on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue, 130 masterpieces of Greek antiquity art from the world’s leading museums underscore the complex tangle of desires, impulses, and instincts that drove Western Civilization then as they do now.
The free exhibition at the Onassis Cultural Center on 51st Street, “A World of Emotions,” digs deep into ancient Greek mythology, drama and storytelling to highlight motivations and universal truths of humanity — at least the Western version.
“Desire is the beginning of everything,’’ said Angelos Chaniotis, exhibition curator and professor of ancient history and classics at Princeton Universityduring a tour of the exhibit.
“The Greeks made myths, narrated them and turned them into art. They wrote philosophy with the aim to discuss emotions . . . starting Western literature.’’
The exhibition opened March 9 and continues through June 24. Some works appear for the first time in the United States, on loan from dozens of museums including two pillars of ancient Greek culture — the Acropolis Museum and the National Archaeological Museum, both in Athens. Other works are on loan from the Louvre in Paris, the British Museum in London and the Musei Vaticani in Vatican City.
The stories depicted in pottery, a fresco painting, sculpture and marble reliefs embrace life’s experiences and its sensations, largely through the lens of the gods of Greek mythology.
A life-size second century marble statue of Pothos shows the Greek god of sexual desire and longing wearing a far away stare, as if he is searching for something lost. A sculpted marble relief shows a generous Zeus — the ruler of all ancient gods of Greek myth — granting gifts to his followers.
Terracotta figurines capture moments between an elderly man and boy reading together and a mother breast-feeding her child — both reminders of religious and family life.
A Grecian drinking bowl has Dionysus, god of the grape harvest, relaxing in his stillness with, of course, some wine. An adjacent fresco from Pompeii, a once great Roman city buried and frozen in time after a volcanic eruption of Italy’s Mount Vesuvius, shows Iphigenia, a mythical priestess, being taken away to be married but instead sacrificed for her father’s misdeeds.
“Just look at the expressions on their faces, the body language . . . all arousing emotions, ”Chaniotis said. The exhibition includes themes of political and public life, as well as military service.
Painted in gold and black on a Grecian vase, the drama of Achilles, cast as a hero for the ages in Homer’s “The Iliad,” unfolds as he plunges his sword into the chest of Penthesilia, slaying the Amazon queen. The painting shows the mortally wounded warrior smiling tenderly, as if gently pleading with Achilles for mercy and love.
“He was sorry to have killed her but it was too late,” said Lydia Koniordou, the Greek minister of culture who attended the tour.
“Look how she looks up to him. Her arms reach up. . . . These are real characters who have become myths through story telling, each time adding more details. . . .These are stories of real people but are told with imaginations.”
Jannis Varelas, a contemporary Los Angeles painter originally from Greece, adds a modern abstract wall panel to the exhibition: “Black Frames.”
Colorful in its yellows, purples, reds, and pinks, the panel is a modern interpretation of emotion, Varelas said.
It represents “the space between us.” he said. “. . . I tried to put my soul up there. Maybe you can find something that connects to you?’’
Cheryl Thompson of the Bronx, who was taking a lunch break sat next to Varelas’ painting.
“It reminds me of my childhood. Happiness,’’ she said smiling as she laughed with her friends.