The art of the contest

Eighteen museums from abroad will be contributing to an exhibition in Greece in July to mark the reopening of the newly refurbished National Archaeological Museum. The works of art, all masterpieces which rarely leave their own abodes, are all related to the theme of competition as experienced in ancient Greece. The exhibition, «Agon» (Ancient Greek for contest), will also be hosting 176 works from 16 Greek museums. A total of 234 works will be placed in the temporary exhibits hall of the country’s foremost museum, which at least will have one major exhibition to show to visitors (the rest of the refurbishment won’t be ready). Planning for the exhibition took three-and-a-half years, the Culture Ministry’s general secretary, Lina Mendoni, told the members of the Central Archaeological Council on Saturday. She affirmed that it will be one of the top exhibitions in Athens, besides those on modern art. «Our aim is to go beyond a narrow concept of sports contests and render the inherently athletic dimension of the ancient world.» The response by foreign museums (the British, Hermitage, Louvre, Capitol, Naples, Berlin State, Munich Glyptothek, New York Metropolitan, Boston Fine Arts, Warsaw and others) has been highly «satisfactory.» It was based, said Mendoni, on the principle of mutuality and the fact that this is an Olympic year. Thus the exhibition is getting «masterpieces» that would be obtained only with great difficulty at any other time. The antiquities on display will date from prehistoric times and will cover all the periods right up to Roman rule. Among the works that are to have star billing are the three Amazons (ancient marble copies), each of them 2 meters tall, that will be arriving in Athens from Berlin, the Vatican and from the Capitol Museum. They are the result of a Classical-era competition among top artists – Pheidias, Polyclitus, Phradmon and Cresilas – in response to a commission by the Ephesians, who wanted a statue of an Amazon for their temple of Artemis at Ephesus. (The sculptors, who had also been asked to be their own judges, promptly awarded themselves the first prize!) The thinking behind the exhibition is the «agon» in its fullest sense: that is, «a constant process for the Greek which insists on constant improvement and the pursuit of excellence.» Aien aristeuein – ever to be the best – lay at the heart of exercising the body and mind in the ancient world. It is even connected with death, as can be seen from the holding of funeral games. The exhibition is divided into four units: the personification of the agon, mythical contests (gods, demigods and mortals), contests of mind and body, and lastly, the acclamation of the victors. The physical contests section essentially shows the preparation of the body and the exercise of the mind at the gymnasia, as well as the main competitions at the Panhellenic and local games. The exhibits will thus depict all the athletic events, such as the pentathlon, the foot race, javelin, discus-throwing, and so on. The mind section will focus on poets, musicians, dramatists and artists. (It’s here we will enjoy viewing the three Amazons.) The exhibition will run to October 31, under the aegis of the Cultural Olympiad, though it is financed by the Culture Ministry. Among the works to be displayed are the bronze statue of an ephebe that was seized in Germany, coin inscriptions, vases and other objects. The National Archaeological Museum will be contributing the Diadoumenon – an athlete binding his head with a fillet – a head of Silenus from Olympia, two boxers fighting, reliefs of a hoplite race (500 BC), a youth at the palaestra (510 BC), the neck and rim of an Attic red-figure crater by the painter Syriscus, and other artifacts. Greek museums which will send antiquities to the National Archaeological Museum include those of Vergina, the Canellopoulos, the Epigraphical, Delphi, Corfu, Thebes, Halkida, Pella, Delos and other museums. The Archaeological Museum itself will open officially in June.