The advent of the holiday season in New York City brings fantastical decorations, sumptuous shop windows, and delicious sweet treats. But, it is a time of year that also draws crowds on the subway, hordes in the grocery store, and multitudes in museums. Visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art on a Saturday afternoon I was delighted by the volume of people enjoying the artworks, but rather annoyed I could not inspect closely the fabulous marble head of Alexander on loan from the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, or that my view of a Delacroix painting was marred by a dozen cell phones. However, if you make it through the always-busy Great Hall, wind your way through the Classical Sculpture gallery, and climb the stairs next to that stately column from Sardis, you may manage to escape the crowds. Tucked away on this balcony above the Roman atrium is a small gallery devoted to a little gem of an exhibition, Dangerous Beauty: Medusa in Classical Art.
The show comprises about 60 objects drawn mostly from the Metropolitan’s own collection and explores the artistic evolution of Medusa, the snake haired Gorgon cursed by Athena and slain by Perseus, from terrifying monster to alluring woman. The exhibit’s creator, Kiki Karoglou, Associate Curator in the Department of Greek and Roman Art, weaves together the myths of different female monsters and draws on more contemporary artworks to create a compelling narrative on the transformation of Medusa and the questions that the Gorgon’s story provokes
Upon entering the gallery one is greeted by the tones of a soundscape by Austin Fisher (available on the exhibitions website), composed in response to the objects surrounding the visitor. The music is in turns a gentle hum accented with melodic chimes and then a brash horn; the juxtaposition reflects the contrast presented by the artifacts on display and in the figure of Medusa. This tension between the different Medusa types, dangerous and dazzling, was beautifully illustrated in the first cased I examined. On the top shelf sat two different bronze greaves (shin guards), dating from 6th and 4th century BC Greece respectively. The earliest portrayed a Gorgon with long, sharp fangs bracketing her extended tongue and atop her head snakes stood tall and menacing with more reptiles circling her face in a mass. The later bronze Medusa was serene with sad, wide set eyes and face fame by a single pair of snakes neatly tied in a bow below her chin. In both periods Medusa is used to adorn armor and serve a protective or apotropaic function for those in combat, but over two centuries tastes changed and the two representations are very different.
The exhibition also includes one of the earliest examples of a Medusa in the form of a beautiful maiden, versus terrifying monster. In a red-figure pelike from the mid-5th century, pre-dating the greave with the placid Gorgon by a century, she is depicted fast asleep with Perseus poised to behead the oblivious woman. There are no snakes or fangs to label Medusa as a monster. The scene is identifiable, not because of Medusa’s appearance, but because Perseus looks away from his victim, afraid of being turned to stone. To me, the depiction is sympathetic to Medusa, as Perseus looks almost comical and decidedly unheroic attacking a woman who is soundly sleeping.
As Medusa transformed from grisly to girlish during the Archaic to Hellenistic periods, so did other mythical female creatures. The exhibition explores the change in representations of Scylla and the Sirens, famed for their part in delaying Odysseus’s return to Ithaca in Homer’s epic. The show also brings together several depictions of sphinxes, creatures with the body of lion, wings of an eagle, and head of a woman. More contemporary depictions of these creatures are displayed alongside ancient examples. A comely sphinx, part of an early 4th century grave stele, is arranged facing and appears to contemplate, a 20th century woodcut of a seductive siren with wild hair by Raoul Dufy. One wonders what the sphinx thinks of Dufy’s siren.
The exhibition is sprinkled with objects that significantly post-date the ancient Greeks. The objects allude to the concept of the enticing, but sinister female that arose in reaction to later gains in women’s independence and empowerment. One of the most striking modern pieces in the room, prominently displayed next to the dramatic gold letters set against a dark grey wall that announce the title of the exhibit, is a black Versace cocktail dress from the designer’s iconic Autumn/Winter 1992–93 “Miss S&M” collection. If one examines the dress closely you will see the buttons do not show the traditional Versace Medusa, but one with her mouth opened wide in a scream and her face twisted in anguish. What do these buttons say about Medusa, about women, about the position of women in ancient and modern societies, and how the status of women has changed legally and artistically? To me, the more modern objects provoked questions on gender and sexuality in the myth of Medusa, but did not confront some of the more difficult elements. This gap is an opportunity for a conversation.
This little jewel box of an exhibition is a collection that sparks discussion, on Greek art, on the transmission of ancient texts, and on the perceptions and role of women in the ancient and modern world and how those stereotypes have changed, or not. The questions the exhibition raises are best set against a little context so I recommend browsing the Museum Bulletin (available online with GoogleBooks) for Dr. Karoglou’s full analysis of the transition in Greek art and the subsequent repurposing of Medusa by artists of different generations. For ancient sources a visitor might want to skim in chronological order to compare the literary and artistic evolution of Medusa, these relevant texts: Hesiod (Theogony 270–82), Apollodorus (Library 2.4.1–2), Ovid (Metamorphosis 4.604–5.249). The great reward of this exhibition is the ability to intimately examine and compare different objects; I found a little preparation allowed me to spend my time in the galleries focused on the objects instead of the wall text.
And for those who cannot make time to visit Dangerous Beauty during a busy holiday season, combining the existing online resources (the Bulletin, the Met’s website, and browsing the ancient texts) provides a wonderful opportunity to gain familiarity with different variations of the Medusa myth. I have assigned potential visitors a lot of homework for a fun, holiday trip to the museum, and while preparation augments the experience, the objects on display are aesthetically beautiful and illustrate clearly Medusa’s transition from “dangerous” to “beautiful” in ancient Greek art. The little gallery is a wonderful place to spend a few restful minutes contemplating the artworks and the relevance of Medusa myth today.
Dangerous Beauty: Medusa in Classical Art is on view through January 6, 2019 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
Henrietta Hakes is a Development Officer at the Paideia Institute.