Toledo Museum of Art hosts once-in-a-lifetime show

Michael H. Hodges
Detroit News Fine Arts Writer

It wasn’t necessarily a recipe for artistic longevity.

An anonymous painter 2,500 years ago adorned thousands of black ceramic vases with his reddish-orange portraits of armed warriors, lusty satyrs and Greek gods.

Used for everything from wine to olive oil, it’s nothing short of miraculous that dozens of these supremely perishable vases somehow survived the millennia, either whole or in large enough fragments for conservationists to reassemble.

Over 50 of these ancient, handsome vessels — created at the dawn of Western art — are on view through Oct. 1 in “The Berlin Painter and His World” at the Toledo Museum of Art.

“There were a couple vessels found virtually intact,” said museum director Brian Kennedy of the works on display, “but nearly everything has been restored, often from hundreds of pieces.”

On some vases, you can see places where fragments were joined to other fragments. But in many cases, the layperson will be largely stumped.

“I think that’s the hidden and most remarkable reality of the show,” Kennedy added. “This is a piece of conservation reconstruction of the highest order.”

The Berlin Painter takes his name from a vase in a Berlin museum, considered one of the artist’s very best, which became the standard for identifying his trademark style in other vessels scattered across the ancient world.

The painter may be anonymous, but he lived through a remarkably tumultuous period. He would have witnessed the birth of Athenian democracy, the sack of the city by the Persians, and its ultimate triumph over the invaders.

If the conservation involved in recreating these vessels is impressive, so too is their sheer beauty.

“The Berlin Painter’s style is distinguished by a suave elegance and a palpable tension between shape and decoration.” wrote J. Michael Padgett, curator of ancient art at the Princeton University Art Museum, which organized the show.

“His figures, and the ornament accompanying them, are executed with taut, dexterous precision,” Padgett added, “whether on water jars (hydriai), large wine bowls (kraters), or smaller shapes such as jugs (oinochoai) and oil bottles (lekythoi).”

(Want to identify the Berlin Painter’s work from that of all the other artists churning out similar vases in the same period? Look for the two delicate lines he used to define ankles.)

While prized, these pots and vases were also everyday working utensils marketed across the city-state’s trade routes. Works attributed to the Berlin Painter turned up as far afield as Sicily.

While most of these vases have been pieced back together, the show also has several large fragments on display, like the “Fragment of a Red-figure Volute-Krater with the Return of Hephaistos,” dated to about 490-480 B.C.

(Hephaistos was the Greek god of fire and metallurgy.)

Alas, for residents in other parts of the country, “The Berlin Painter” will close after its Toledo run.

“Because of the value of these objects,” Kennedy said, “and because they’re so important to their institutions, they could only be exhibited at two venues,” Princeton and Toledo.

Works on loan came from some of the world’s most-prestigious museums, including the British Museum, the Vatican Museums, the Harvard Art Museums, the Musée du Louvre and the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin.

“These are the foundation objects of Western civilization,” Kennedy added. “If there was to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to gather these things together, the museums agreed that this should be the occasion.”

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Twitter: @mhodgesartguy

‘The Berlin Painter and His World: Athenian Vase-Painting in the Early Fifth Century B.C.’

Through Oct. 1

Toledo Museum of Art

2445 Monroe, Toledo

10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tues. and Wed.; 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Thur. and Fri.; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sat.; noon-5 p.m. Sun.

Free admission to the museum; admission to the special exhibition, $10. Parking $7

(419) 255-8000