NEW YORK.- By VICKY J. YIANNIAS
Small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, two bronze statuettes, one of three sleeping babies with their arms and legs flung open in the abandonment of heavy sleep, and another a crawling baby, who, with his head cocked, looks at the viewer with an expression of wordless anticipation, could have been modeled at naptime in a nursery today, but they are among 82 ancient objects that date from 1500 BC to the first century AD, in the exhibition “Coming of Age in Ancient Greece: Images of Childhood from the Classical Past” at the Onassis Cultural Center in New York from January 23 to April 15, 2004.
The Ambassador of Greece to the United Nations and the Ambassador of Cyprus to the United Nations were among the many dignitaries present at the opening reception of the exhibition on Thursday evening.
Dr. Cole, Chairman of The National Endowment for the Humanities, which is a major supporter of this exhibition, praised the Onassis Foundation for supporting scholarships and public programs throughout the United States which expand the public’s knowledge of both ancient and modern Greek history and culture. “The Foundation has spread the knowledge of Hellenic civilization and its deep and abiding influence across oceans and millennia. Your work has enriched the cultural life of the United States in so many important ways.”
This exhibition, said Cole, is but one manifestation of the National Endowment of the Humanities, whose widespread, ongoing support of projects related to Greek history and culture has amounted to approximately eleven billion dollars in the last ten years for many numbers of projects, ranging from the plays of Aristophanes, and the study of military service in ancient Athens, to the work of modern Greek writers, all of which have “explored the unique contribution of Greek civilization in ancient times to today.”
Ambassador Loucas Tsilas, Executive Director of the Onassis Cultural Center, expressed his feeling that this is perhaps the Center’s most important and unique exhibition thus far. “It says so much about those children who grew up to become philosophers, historians and scientists; Socrates and Demosthenes and democracy came from among them.”
Contemporary scholars are increasingly interested in the lives of ancient Greek children, their play and schooling, their roles in family life and religious rituals, and the development of the child characters in Greek mythology. Because there are almost no ancient texts on the subject, however, they seek information from visual sources such as the ancient Greek vase paintings, figurines, grave markers, and toys in this show. “Coming of Age in Ancient Greece: Images of Childhood from the Classical Past” is the first major exhibition on this subject.
The poignant depictions of children in this show, more eloquent than the written words, are all the more compelling because the Greeks were the first to represent children naturalistically (Mesopotamian and Egyptian children were depicted as small adults). One of many examples of this wonderful naturalism is an endearing vase painting of two little boys, their short curly hair crowned with laurel wreaths, engaged in a friendly boxing match. Ancient dolls with movable arms and legs; a spinning top that waits to be set into motion; miniature furniture that could outfit a play house; and pull toys like a painted horse on wheels that hopes for a rider, prove that children have played with the same simple toys perhaps forever.
To illustrate the major role played by athletic competitions in the frequent religious festivals throughout Greece, the Center has added a timely special section relevant to the Olympics theme titled “Striving Through Excellence”, consisting of 12 artifacts.
Graceful paintings of naked athletes in training circle the curves of a kylix. Captured in mid-jump, an athlete holds the ancient, curved, handheld free weights used to increase jumping momentum (this device to help increase jumping distance was just recently rediscovered by modern athletes), while trainers in togas sport long sticks with forked ends which were used to correct or break-up unruly behavior between participants; propped up javelins stand waiting to be employed.
Ambassador Tsilas notes that the “Striving For Excellence” section “shows how the Olympic spirit of striving for excellence was instilled in the young people of Greece, and is relevant to Greece’s preparations in this Olympic year.”
A complementary 64-page catalogue of the same name has reproductions with information on these items.
There is a 333-page, fully-illustrated catalogue bearing the name of the exhibition with specially commissioned essays by eminent scholars. Mr. Stelios Papadimitriou, President of the Onassis Foundation (USA), In his catalog dedication, states that “by focusing on the rather unexamined theme of childhood in ancient Greece, we understand better how those children grew up to become magnificent artists, outstanding statesmen, great philosophers, and model citizens who lighted a torch that has enlightened the world over centuries.”
“Coming of Age in Ancient Greece: Images of Childhood from the Classical Past”, in its original form, minus the “Striving for Excellence” section and with a total of 102 artifacts, was organized by the Hood Museum at Dartmouth College and originated there. The exhibit will travel to the Cincinnati Museum of Art, May 1–August 1, 2004, and the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, September 14- December 5, 2004.
The Onassis Cultural Center is located in the Olympic Tower (645 Fifth Avenue) – entrance on 51 and 52 Streets, New York, NY 10022. Telephone (212) 486-4448. www.onassisusa.org
Viewing hours are Monday-Saturday, 10 am -6 pm. Guided tours are organized free for groups of 10 and more individuals.