Exhibit Lets Classical Images Speak For Themselves By Lisa Mastny It seems like everywhere we turn these days, we are bombarded by images. And we have come to rely on images to comprehend our world, to help us make sense of the larger issues surrounding our lives. But images haven't always had so much hype. They weren't always considered open windows to a society's culture and thought. Twelve years ago, a group of French and Swiss archaeologists rocked the community of classical scholars when they developed a purely image-based approach to the study of ancient Greece. Instead of focusing on the literary achievements of the Hellenistic era--the historic texts and time-worn characters carved in stone--they hoped to get a sense of the ancient Greek world through its imagery alone, through the elaborate art adorning otherwise simple storage urns and drinking vessels. Drawing on the vast resources of archaeological collections worldwide, these scholars compiled a book of these images with a single premise in mind: let the images speak for themselves, with their own language and voice, as documents of an extinct culture. Despite grumbling from more conventional classicists, the book, "A City of Images: Religion and Society in Ancient Greece," proved a great success. Detailed enlargements of the photographs began to grace exhibition halls throughout Europe, and visitors were able to observe first-hand and interpret for themselves the frenzied wine festivals and sacrificial rites of the ancient world. But although the book was published in the United States in 1989 by the Princeton University Press and translated into English, the exhibit had never been displayed outside Europe. Until now. Last week, several of the panels appeared on the walls of the Milton S. Eisenhower Library, bringing the otherwise vacant hallway outside the Garrett Room alive with large photos of Greek vases. The exhibit, "Bodies, Faces, Gestures," was arranged by the Classics Department in collaboration with the authors of the original book of vase images. Several of these authors joined Hopkins faculty and visiting scholars at a conference at Homewood last week to discuss whether their research and methodology is still valid more than a decade after the first compilation of the book. "A progressive criticism is under way right now, with the very people who did the research continually challenging their own premises about the role of imagery in classical studies," said Giulia Sissa, chairwoman of the Classics Department and university coordinator of the display. "With both the exhibit and the conference at Hopkins, we are really right at the heart of this debate right now." Dr. Sissa was delighted when the library agreed to show the display for one month in a hallway not usually reserved for such events. "It is a very visible American premiere of this unique exhibit," she said. "The posters are extremely beautiful, large and readable, and they reproduce the Greek vase paintings in great detail." The displayed images come from archaeological collections all over the world, including those of the British Museum, the Louvre, the Athens National Museum and other renowned museums in Italy and Great Britain. Dr. Sissa pursued the idea of the exhibit because she felt it would introduce to scholars the unique, non-textual approach to the study of the ancient world. "No one before had really ever tried to approach the images in Greek art completely independently from other texts," she said. "But these art historians think that they have rules and specificities of their own, just like any verbal language, and can be interpreted in their own right." While the images of hunting practices or mythological beings painted on the vases may seem unrealistic, they provide great insight into the cultural ideas of civilizations we otherwise know very little about, Dr. Sissa said. "The main philosophy behind the book and the exhibit is to learn to be cautious when you see 'realistic' images," she said. "Because they are not realistic. They are constructs, illustrated ideas, and not necessarily reflections of what actually happened in Greek society. What we learn from them are certain main ideas the society had about humanity, life and death, civilization and nature, men and gods." Greek attitudes toward murder, for example, can be inferred by studying and comparing certain images of sacrifice and offering, Dr. Sissa said. "In almost all the paintings of banquets and rituals, you find that the artists avoided showing the actual violence of sacrifice," she said. "You see the procession and the moments leading up to it, and you see the offering at the altar afterwards, but you never see the specific moment of violence, the killing of the animal. The Greeks didn't view 'good' sacrifice as murder, so by not showing the knife they avoided the ambiguity and associations with murder that might otherwise arise." Similarly, unrealistic images of mythical beings such as satyrs playing with wine, but not drinking it, may reflect ancient attitudes toward alcohol consumption, Dr. Sissa said. In addition to images of wine, ritual and sacrifice, the exhibit illustrates eroticism, war, the hunt and warrior leave-taking.
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