We are only a month or so away from the Rio Olympics. While the world will soon be focused on that, in Japan many will also be thinking four years ahead to the Tokyo Olympics. It is easy, then, to see why the Tokyo National Museum is holding “A Journey to the Land of Immortals: Treasures of Ancient Greece.”
Ancient Greece is almost synonymous in the popular mind with the first Olympic Games, held in Greece from 776 BC until they were shut down in the 4th or 5th century. “Treasures of Ancient Greece” naturally tries to capitalize on this association, with a section dedicated to “The Ancient Olympic Games.”
The section features Attic black-figure pottery, depicting various sports, such as javelin throwing, chariot racing and a rather brutal form of boxing. There is also a bronze figurine, “Wrestling group with Ptolemy V Epiphanes” (2nd-1st Century BC), a portrayal of a Macedonian king of Egypt who was much more successful as a sportsman than a leader.
Small as it is — at about 21 centimeters tall — this figure provides an interesting pivot point for the exhibition, marking the moment at which the old traditions that once gave Greek civilization its potency became hollowed out and were made to serve other ends — commercial or crassly political.
The Olympic sports have their origin in religious funeral games. By the time of Ptolemy V Epiphanes, however, sport had become a means of pleasing the crowd and playing to the gallery.
Much else in Greek culture follows this trajectory of evolving from a world of pious myth and mystery toward something more glib and urbane. The exhibition also includes some terra cotta theater masks that remind us that Greek plays would originally have been more like awe-inspiring rituals than crowd-pleasing dramas.
Our idea of Greek civilization tends to be somewhat cliched, drawing too heavily on its peak period. This gives us a picture of a civilization that was seemingly dominated by somewhat modern ideals and aesthetics. This exhibition, however, reaches far back into the Minoan and Cycladic periods, letting us see how the more familiar aspects of Greek civilization were rooted in something stranger and more unfathomable.
The stone figures dated to the 3rd millennium BC from the Cyclades islands in the Aegean Sea come as a shock, showing minimalist, alien-looking forms, and the exhibition attempts to link these to the kore (maiden) and kouros (male youth) statues from the 6th century BC. These rather stiff statues of male and female youths are generally regarded as the starting point of Greek classical sculpture.
The artifacts from the Minoan period, including “Marine-style Jar” (c. 1450 BC), are also impressive, showing the mercurial creativity we associate with Greek civilization, but in a more exotic form.
“A Journey to the Land of Immortals: Treasures of Ancient Greece” at the Tokyo National Museum runs until Sept. 19; 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. ¥1,600. Closed Mon. (except July 18, Aug. 15 and Sept. 19), July 19. www.tnm.jp