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Athena Review Exhibition Reports: 

The Year One: Art of the Ancient World, East and West

Metropolitan Museum of Art

1000 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10028, Special Exhibitions Gallery, first floor  (tel: 212/570-3951)

October 3, 2000 - January 14, 2001

In celebration of the new millennium, an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art presents nearly 150 works of art--almost all entirely from its own collections--that were produced in the period just before and after the beginning of the first millennium (most, specifically, date between the second century BC and the second century AD) from regions around the world, including western Europe, the Mediterranean, the Near East, India, China, Southeast Asia, and the Americas. The exhibit enables the Met to draw attention to some of its finest works, a few of which are currently seen for the first time in newly conserved condition.

According to Elizabeth Milleker, Associate Curator of the Department of Greek and Roman Art, and the coordinator of The Year One, the exhibit is organized around the principle that the turn of the first millennium found the "world more united than ever before," because of the interconnections between five major empires across Eurasia, and the subsequent control of major trading routes. The exhibit begins with the most western of these empires, the Romans, who at this time were evolving from the austerity of the Republic to the commercial and military expansion and cultural exuberance of the Empire.

[Fig.1:  Fresco of Greek mythogical landscape with Polyphemus and Galatea, from villa at Boscotrecase (Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1979).]

More than any other objects in the exhibit, the wonderfully exuberant wall paintings from Agrippa's villa at Boscotrecase overlooking the Bay of Naples, show the playfulness of private Roman art in the Augustan period, as well as the appropriation of imagery from other ancient cultures. Panels from the Black Room at Boscoreale are here displayed for the first time as they would have appeared to inhabitants of the villa. Standing within the room one enters a world of impossible, whimsical architecture, with neither depth nor volume, painted in exquisite detail in the Pompeian “third style,” against a black background. In the center panel a tiny landscape vignette in Hellenistic style floats anchorless within this vast and empty blackness. On a sidepanel a slender candelabrum supports a small yellow box, which contains an Egyptianizing scene, a reference to the recent Roman conquest of Egypt. Other frescos from Boscotrecase in the exhibit depict scenes from Greek mythology (fig.1); one can imagine that their cool, blue-green tones and ethereal style were a pleasant sleep-aid to Agrippa’s royal guests.

The next gallery features art from new Roman conquests: the Celtic tribes now organized as Roman provinces in Gaul, Britannia, and Pannonia (today’s Austria and Hungary), and the Egyptians who came under Roman rule after Cleopatra’s suicide in 30 BC.

Items in the brown gallery represent the various thriving cultures of West and Central Asia. Nearly equal to the Roman Empire in power, if not size, was the Parthian Empire which controlled most of Mesopotamia, Iran, and western Central Asia. A silver rhyton with a protome in the form of a wild feline (fig.2) is a fine example of the luxury ware produced for the Parthian royal court.

[Fig.2: Gilded silver rhyton with forepart of a wild cat, from Parthian dynasty, Iran, 1st century BC (Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1920).]

 A stone statue of a Bodhisattva (fig. 3) from the Gandhara region (modern Pakistan) reflects the eclectic culture of the Kushan dynasty. This early image of a Buddhist spiritual guide incorporates Greco-Roman conventions in its muscular torso, heavy garments and deeply incised drapery folds, while other details, such as the regular patterning of the folds draw on local styles.

[Fig.3: Stone torso of a Bodhisattva, from the Kushan dynasty of Gandara (Pakistan), 1-2 c. AD (Metropolitan Museum of Art, Lila Acheson Wallace Gift, 1995).]

 Objects from East Asia are displayed in a room painted the deep red of the Han Dynasty of China. Many of these reflect the wealth brought on by the silk trade, and include a series of tomb figures.

Finely worked bronzes from Southeast Asia are on view in the final gallery. This hall also includes representative objects from the Americas, including an intricately-carved stone vessel from Mayan Guatemala and a polychromatic ceramic drum from the Nasca culture of Peru.

Michele A. Miller

from Athena Review, Vol.2, no.4.

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