The exhibition, organized in conjunction with the Greek government and destined to visit the Getty Villa in Los Angeles after its five-month stay in Washington, borrows from Greek archaeological and art museums, including the magnificent Benaki Museum in Athens. Casual visitors to Greece, determined to exhaust their appetite for classical culture, may not spend much time with this later, less familiar material, but it is everywhere, and it is fascinating.
It is also too complex and diffuse to be covered in anything like the relatively small, synoptic show at the National Gallery. This is a highlights treatment, beginning with the lingering devotion to Roman and ancient Greek aesthetics, and ending with a room of magnificent icons from the 14th and 15th centuries, including a ruddy-cheeked image of the Archangel Michael that may convert anyone temperamentally resistant to the cool, stylized lines of Orthodox religious imagery.
The challenge of the exhibition is the perennial challenge of making sense of Eastern culture within a Western context: It requires first of all humility, then self-discipline and finally an acceptance of confusion, bafflement and wonder. Byzantium roughly corresponds to what students in the West grow up to believe were the Dark Ages, the long millennium and more between the decay of an aesthetic we can appreciate, derived from Rome and Greece, and the emergence of another aesthetic we adore, called the Renaissance. This in-between time seems static, naïve, unpolished, even inept.
If you bring a pencil and paper with you, it won’t be hard to produce a satisfying facsimile of the dancing figure incised through the glaze of a 13th-century bowl made in Cyprus. The face of this crudely made figure is a childlike formula, with a rounded “t” shape forming the nose and brows, two large dots for eyes, and three parallel lines to indicate the mouth and chin. Even the gender is uncertain, and its lower garment, or skirt, is rendered in parallel lines, with no effort to suggest the flowing contours of fabric.
Compared with a marble bust of a young woman, probably made around 410 A.D., when Alaric was sacking Rome far to the West, the bowl from Cyprus suggests an excruciating loss of artistic skill and subtlety. The bust has elegantly rendered drapery and a face of haunting beauty. Both the bust, and the woman it represents, would compel attention in the most sophisticated setting, and the sense that we are seeing a real woman in all her youthful radiance makes everything that is stylized about it (the hair, the ears, the missing arms and torso) disappear. This woman wouldn’t allow that bowl in her house, unless she condescended to accept it as a gift from a child.