Partying with Ancient Greeks

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Partying with the Ancient Greeks

I wonder, what is your way of keeping cool during the crazy, heat wave that has kept us prisoners these past couple of weeks. Movie theaters? Shopping malls? My secret is museum galleries. On Sunday, when the temperature hit 100-- and the humidity, I swear, approached 150% I escaped to the Hammer Museum. It was heaven to spend a couple of hours walking through The Soci--t-- Anonyme, the coolest show in town, telling the story of modernism in America. Besides, the Hammer announced that during the whole summer admission to the Museum is free. How cool is that?

A week ago I gave myself another break and spent the whole scorching afternoon at the Getty Villa looking at an incredible collection of ancient Greek vases. The temporary exhibition, The Colors of Clay, brings together dozens of extremely rare Athenian vases from various museums, including the Vatican, the Metropolitan, the Louvre, the British Museum and the Hermitage. If you've ever strolled through the Greek and Roman galleries of any museum, you'll remember the exquisite proportions of black lacquer ceramic vases with their intricate figurative paintings inspired by myths and legends of ancient Greece. Throughout most of the 6th century BC, Athenian potters used the black-figure technique, painting black, shiny silhouettes against the unique red-orange color of the Athenian clay. Toward the end of this century, a reverse style of decoration emerged, with red-figure images painted against a black background. This development allowed for a more realistic and detailed depiction of the human figure and its surroundings. For a short period of time both styles were used simultaneously to decorate some vases with both red and black silhouettes. I love the term for such vases: scholars call them "bilingual."

A little later, another fashion swept through the Athenian potters' studios: vases began to be sculpted into human or animal forms, sometimes combining both. The exhibition illustrates other techniques as well, including the one where sculpted and gilded details were added to the surface of vases to particularly elaborate effect. Especially haunting are the so-called white ground vases, painted with the now much faded colors -- the only reminder of the lost, large scale paintings of Greek painters that we know about only from their descriptions by ancient writers.

Remembering my recent visit to the Louvre, where I was actually the only person in the galleries of Greek and Roman antiquities, I was pleasantly surprised to see so many people crowding around the display cases at the Getty Villa. I noticed that some parents were anxious to divert the attention of their little darlings from some racy subjects chosen by the Athenian potters for their vases. Prudes those ancient Athenians definitely were not. And boy, did they know how to have a good time. There are vases for mixing wine with water and those for drinking and yet another for pouring wine. Plus all variety of small flasks for precious perfumes and oils. And let's not forget the flat, round dishes for food with their painted geometric and figurative compositions: these dishes are simply to die for. This exhibition, with its rich information about the processes used by ancient potters, is an excellent example of the Getty at its best, combining its unparalleled resources with meticulous scholarly research.

"The Soci--t-- Anonyme: Modernism for America"
UCLA Hammer Museum
Through August 20
10899 Wilshire Boulevard
Los Angeles

"The Colors of Clay: Special Techniques in Athenian Vases"
Getty Villa
Through September 4
17985 Pacific Coast Highway
Pacific Palisades