“A World of Emotions: Ancient Greece, 700 Bc – 200 Ad” at Onassis Cultural Center in New York

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On March 9, the Onassis Cultural Center New York will bring to vivid life the emotions of the people of ancient Greece, and prompt questions about how we express, control, manipulate, or simulate feelings in our own society, by presenting its groundbreaking exhibition A World of Emotions: Ancient Greece, 700 BC – 200 AD.

On view through June 24, 2017 exclusively at the Onassis Cultural Center New York, where admission is always free, the exhibition brings together more than 130 masterpieces from some of the world’s leading museums—including the Acropolis Museum, Athens; National Archaeological Museum, Athens; Musée du Louvre (Department of Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities), Paris; British Museum, London; and Musei Vaticani, Vatican City—to explore the ideas and attitudes of people in classical antiquity toward emotion and the ways in which the emotions were depicted, revealing how some are strikingly familiar to us and some shockingly alien. Although ancient Greece is often said to have been flooded with the light of reason, A World of Emotions lays bare the far different reality addressed in the Iliad, whose very first word is menis: wrath.

Developed by a team of esteemed guest curators, A World of Emotions features vase paintings, sculptures (ranging from life-size statues from the Acropolis to relief carvings from cemeteries), theatrical masks, amulets, coins, and votive offerings, among other artifacts from the early 7th century BC (the traditional date of the Iliad) to the late 2nd century AD. Many are on view in the United States for the first time, and some seen for the first time outside Greece. Together, these objects provide a timely opportunity to think about the role of feelings in our own personal, social, and political lives, while helping to advance the relatively new field of the history of emotions.

Accompanying the exhibition to create a spring season dedicated to the theme of emotions is a cross-disciplinary constellation of other artworks, programs, and events. A vibrant large-scale diptych painting, Black Frames, commissioned from artist Jannis Varelas is installed on the Art Wall in the Onassis Cultural Center New York’s atrium space. Philosopher Simon Critchley and author John Freeman will host the peripatetic conversation series Let’s Walk, engaging celebrated guests such as actress Fiona Shaw and author Judith Thurman in discussions in the gallery. A regular schedule of guided tours and family programs will be provided, and on April 3, in collaboration with the Axion Estin Foundation, the Onassis Cultural Center New York will host a concert of Byzantine hymns for Holy Week, performed in the gallery. In a lighter vein, illustrator Brooke Barker, author of the bestselling Sad Animal Facts, will produce a series of drawings spinning off emotions for the spring season, which will be posted weekly on the Onassis Cultural Center New York’s website and social media and displayed on a video monitor in the gallery foyer.

Dr. Anthony Papadimitriou, President of the Onassis Foundation, said, “A World of Emotions and the programs that accompany it are powerful expressions of the mission of the Onassis Foundation: to support initiatives in education and culture as a means to achieve social cohesion. Although this exhibition is a rare and thoughtful thematic gathering of beautiful and fascinating objects from the ancient world, it is also much more: a contribution toward a better understanding of our present-day reality. We are deeply grateful to our distinguished guest curators for this important exhibition and its revelatory catalogue.”

Amalia Cosmetatou, Executive Director and Cultural Director of the Onassis Foundation USA, said, “Thanks to the brilliant work of our guest curators, A World of Emotions will make an important new contribution to scholarship, while bringing the public into the presence of objects that still have the power to move and astonish more than 2,000 years after they were made.”

About A World of Emotions Theoretical writings about human emotions date back to ancient Greece itself. Only within the past few decades, however, have scholars begun to investigate emotional life as a force that shapes societies, influences historical processes, and varies in different contexts—giving rise, for example, to such unique characteristics of ancient Greece as the belief that figures such as Eros (love) and Phobos (fear) were not just representations of emotions but actual gods to be supplicated or placated. These investigations face an inherent challenge, however, since the principal medium for research—textual evidence—is often a thin source, composed to filter, disguise, or even mute emotions as much as to reveal or arouse them. A World of Emotions expands the possibilities of a history of emotions in classical antiquity by going beyond literary texts and inscriptions to include the evidence of the visual arts.

The distinguished historian Angelos Chaniotis, co-curator of the exhibition, said, “We cannot directly study neurobiological processes in ancient Greece. But we can see how social norms, religious beliefs,hilosophical ideas, and education determined the manifestations of emotions, and how emotions in turn determined social interaction, political behavior, and religious practice. This is our gain from studying emotions in the Greek world. What we learn about emotions in one culture and one historical period helps us understand another. It sharpens our mind to reflect on our lives and our world.”

A World of Emotions: Ancient Greece, 700 BC – 200 AD is curated for the Onassis Cultural Center New York by Angelos Chaniotis, Professor of Ancient History and Classics, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton; Nikolaos Kaltsas, Director Emeritus, National Archaeological Museum, Athens; and Ioannis Mylonopoulos, Associate Professor of Ancient Greek Art and Archaeology, Columbia University. The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue featuring essays by scholars including the cocurators, David Konstan, and Joseph E. LeDoux, as well as contributions from nearly 60 European and American authors.

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