It's Greek to You

Last week, the security cameras at the Meadows Museum caught Edmund P. Pillsbury (Ted to his friends and sycophants) red-handed. Actually, surveillance video revealed white-gloved hands carefully tracing the gentle curve of a nude woman's buttocks. He was seen stroking the arch of another's back, caressing the contours of her tiny breasts, up in the galleries. Away from the art-filled office where he runs Southern Methodist University's underappreciated art museum, Pillsbury was pressing the flesh of exquisitely drawn female figures, fondling images of courtesans cavorting on rarely seen, ancient Greek vases.

It was Pillsbury's acumen and international reputation that brought about a new, exclusive U.S. showing of 44 antiquities, which the museum is calling "masterpieces of the potter's craft and the painter's art," lent from the National Archaeological Museum in Madrid, Spain. The former director of Fort Worth's Kimbell Museum and former partner with Gerald Peters at Pillsbury-Peters Fine Art in Dallas, Pillsbury was named director of the Meadows last July. He supported an extraordinary project led by SMU archeologist and art history professor P. Gregory Warden, who headed an international team of scholars to secure and exhibit Greek Vase Painting: Form, Figure, and Narrative--Treasures of the National Archaeological Museum in Madrid, which opens February 8. Warden edited the exhibition catalog and will speak about art, which was created between the eighth and third centuries B.C., in a presentation by the team in a public symposium February 7.

Despite the list of scholarly heavyweights who will join Warden and Pillsbury on the symposium panel--nearly a dozen curators, scholars and professors of art, history, archaeology and the classics from institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museo Arqueológico Nacional of Madrid and Johns Hopkins University--Warden promises both the lectures and the exhibition will be viewer-friendly. "I hate shows that insist you do things in a certain way," Warden says. "We have designed this exhibition so that it's fun enough to encourage people to simply enjoy it or perhaps want to learn more." Rather than assemble the vases along a timeline, in yawn-inducing, chronological order, Warden has configured the exhibition by the Greek artisans' themes. "We've grouped Apollonian themes--time and space, myth and narrative, and women and society--contrasted with Dionysian themes--the mask, the symposium or banquet, and the afterlife," he says. Dionysian works, Warden says, are theater representations, and "at the banquets, the idea was to get drunk and get closer to Dionysos."

Pillsbury explained that the vases for the Meadows exhibit were chosen "not only for their quality and excellent state of preservation, but for their range of imagery." Gods and goddesses, fantasy creatures and events, rituals, fabled heroes and simple narratives of life and death represent the earliest known examples of accurate, lifelike human figures and forms. "They are powerful images," Warden says, "with the power to engage the viewer directly." He cites the sixth-century Greek poet Semonides, who wrote, "Poetry is painting that speaks; painting is silent poetry." The Greek artists signed these works, Warden adds, and are known by name, such as Andokides and Epiktetos, or simply by their work. "We identified the Berlin Painter, the Painter of the Madrid Fountain, the Tarquinia Painters, the Baltimore Painter of Magna Graecia and the Aison Painter as some of the masters of the medium," he says.