By Gordon Gage
The day to attend the opening of Olympus, the Greco-Roman Collections of Berlin at the Winnipeg Art Gallery finally arrived. It is rare that a collection of such antiquity and importance would actually travel anywhere from its home museum, let alone to another continent. However, as they say, the gods seemed to have been on our side. Timing, opportunity and circumstance had come together to bring this incredible exhibition to Winnipeg.
Timing and circumstance presented themselves when Dr. Stephen Borys, WAG director and CEO, was in Europe on business related to the gallery’s renowned Inuit art collection and learned of the renovations taking place at the National Museum of Berlin. It was that renovation which provided the opportunity for these classical antiquities to make their way here to Winnipeg.
The Olympus exhibition opening ceremonies will go down as a significant event in the WAG’s history, a fact particularly worth noting because the WAG is the oldest civic art gallery in Canada.
Werner Franz Wnendt, ambassador to Canada of the Federal Republic of Germany; Gian Lorenzo Cornado, ambassador to Canada of the Republic of Italy; George L. Marcantonatos, ambassador to Canada of the Hellenic Republic to Canada, along with Prof. Michael Eissenhauer, general director of the State Museum of Berlin and Prof. Andreas Scholl, State Museum antiquity director, each welcomed the guests and explained their relationships to the Olympus exhibition.
Dr. Ernest Cholakis, chair of the WAG board of governors, discussed the partnerships formed to bring Olympus to Canada.
A colourful dance display followed the formal presentations and guests then ascended to the exhibit entrance. In passing through this doorway one begins a journey into another world, a period of our civilization that existed in Greece and Rome spanning the seventh century BC through to the second century AD.
You find yourself back in a time when our lives would have been subject to the whims and influences of the gods living atop Mount Olympus. The forces that influence many of us today emanate from an electronic object we hold in the palm of our hands. Back then, our ancestors looked to the mystical, currying favour with the deities to help fulfill their aspirations and dreams for a life well lived.
The journey truly begins in the exhibition’s grand rotunda, where we are under the eyes of the mythical rulers of this old world. The setting and the feel in this one space testifies to the creativity and work that went into presenting this magnificent collection.
Zeus, father of the gods, ruler of Mount Olympus, god of the sky, weather, thunder, lightning, law, order and justice joins with his wife Hera, queen of the gods, goddess of marriage, women, childbirth, heirs, kings and empires.
Together they preside over the rest of the mighty mythical deities and their offspring, gathered in this symbolic structure echoing the architecture of a past age.
If you thought today’s lifestyles are on the wild or freakish side, touch the outside of the envelope, or that your family tree may have a few odd branches in it, wait until you study Zeus and Hera’s lineage to see how things were done back in their day. You will be surprised to say the least.
The curators at the WAG have done a remarkable job in crafting a journey back in time that is not only a feast for the senses but also an opportunity to discover how much of the distant past remains with us today.
All the actions, thoughts, desires, ambitions, circumstances and opportunities that surrounded the people living in Greco-Roman times were influenced by the likes of Aphrodite, Apollo, Ares, Artemis, Athena, Demeter, Diana, Dionysus, Hades, Herakles, Hermes and Poseidon. You will learn a great deal about the relationships among these powerful entities and how the turmoil of their relationships cascaded down upon the mere mortals of the day.
If being under the gaze of the gods is not enough to stimulate your thought processes, what follows on the tour will take you to a period that has an impact on our lives today. Here we stand among artifacts cast by artisans depicting the triumphs and tragedies of life in the time of the gods, viewing the work of potters and master painters who lived and worked in Athens between 600 and 300 BC.
These are remarkable pieces. A number of them were actually trophies, awarded as prizes to victorious athletes during the Panathenaic Games in Athens. The ancient Greeks and Romans were very competitive and enjoyed contests like chariot races, equestrian competitions and many athletic endeavours, very much a precursor to today’s summer and winter Olympics
The Olympus exhibition provides a vast perspective on a civilization viewed across a number of centuries, covering all the humanities including the arts, music and theatre right through to the gladiator. The warrior of those days. Walking amongst artifacts that were created, worn, viewed and used by a people many millennia ago is something that you simply have to experience. With moods ranging from laughter to sadness, with goals and ambitions on display along with victories won and lost, Olympus takes you on a journey that encompasses the roots of our entire Western civilization.
This exhibition will appeal to everyone of every age. As Dr. Stephen Borys finely puts it,“ Visitors can experience this art in so many ways: the gods and goddesses, myths, stylistic development, or through the eyes of a connoisseur.
“The opportunity for children to study ancient civilization and view Olympus is inspiring. A child will recognize personalities that are referenced in novels like Percy Jackson and in films like Hercules. These names and characters still penetrate our daily lives. “
“We are working with local groups and scholars to build rich exhibition programming that will appeal to every age and interest. The generosity of the National Museum in Berlin is astounding. To have a small part of this incredible collection come to Canada, to Winnipeg, is historic and rewarding.”
Olympus features over 160 ancient treasures from Berlin’s Antikensammlung, one of the most celebrated holdings of its kind worldwide. Spanning almost 10 centuries of artistic production, these marble statues, terracotta vases and jewelry pieces introduce us to the worlds of Greek and Roman art, mythology, and religion.
From the time of Homer and Hesiod, classical myths and legends have remained a source of inspiration and discovery, sustained in part by a legacy of artistic expression and innovation, as we see in Olympus.
This is an exhibition not to be missed. The gods will favour your participation just as they must have had a hand in making this exceptional collection available right here in Winnipeg.
Gordon Gage is the former chair of the Winnipeg Art Gallery. He is now part of the Lifestyles 55 team.