San Antonio already possesses one of the choicest collections of classical art in the country, on permanent display in the lovely Ewing Halsell Wing of the San Antonio Museum of Art. But it's a testament to exceptional leadership (and exceptional taste) that it has also nabbed the only non-coastal mounting of the touring exhibit "Aphrodite and the Gods of Love." (The exhibit is organized by the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, with a stop also at the J. Paul Getty museum in Los Angeles: SAMA is thus in excellent, and rarified, company.) An assemblage of objects that reflect the various cultic and social aspects of Aphrodite, goddess of desire, the tour brings together artifacts from several different collections, including some astounding works from Naples' famous Museo Archeologico Nazionale. It is supplemented as well by striking additions from SAMA's own collection, under the curatorial supervision of Jessica Powers. The whole shebang is a trove of delights.
Word on the street is that this collection is just as attractively presented as at its other locations: it helps that everything is bigger in Texas and the exhibit's six rooms feel appropriately roomy and reflective. In layout, the exhibit generally follows a linear timeline, from the earliest religious manifestations of Aphrodite — it's nice to see a shout-out to Ishtar, for instance — to her more familiar representations as a classical nude. Indeed, the exhibit is anchored by the gorgeous seven-foot-tall statue of Aphrodite of Capua, whose slipping garment quickens the imagination (and pulse). The exhibit's "gods of love" are largely Erotes, the various manifestations of Eros sprinkled like confetti on mythological scenes. Sometimes, however, Eros takes center stage, as in the impossibly cute terra cotta figurine from Asia Minor: here, Eros drops his bow and arrows in order to don a petite, toddler-sized version of Hercules' lion-skin garb. The implications are clear: even the he-est of he-men must succumb to this cuddliest of gods.
Fearless Current readers will want to make a beeline to the dimly-lit (and suspiciously bench-less) nook at the back of the exhibit, prefaced by the stern warning that it "contains explicit content" and that "viewer discretion is advised." Turns out that San Antonio can now take in the splendors of a winged Eros carrying off a beautiful male youth, in the Athenian equivalent of the mile-high club. (This red-figure representation of an erastes, 'lover,' and eromenos, 'beloved,' also comports perfectly with Greek neuroses about penetration and the inviolability of the citizen body.) Rather more routine erotica can be explored on terracotta vases from both Greece and Rome, while a "nightmare" sex scene — between a man and a winged, web-footed siren — throws into (literal) relief the differences between everyday and mythological love-making. (This last is on loan from the Boston MFA, and it's truly phantasmagorical.)
By the by, it's definitely worth checking out the hilarious patron-submitted comment cards in the room "Aphrodite Yesterday and Today." "Oh my, how lewd!" exclaims one outraged 78-year-old patron (a card of dubious sincerity and provenance); another opines that "Love is … a fever in the blood, resulting in an imbalance of the four humours of the body." (This patron helpfully included his name — Hippocrates — and age: 2450. SAMA obviously has a deep subscription base in SA's medical community.) The exhibit's catalogue — $35 for a paperback at the book store — is edited by Christine Kondoleon and includes essays from some of the top scholars in the field; full of detailed photos, it's a worthy tabletop companion to one of the niftiest exhibits of classical art in America in the past two decades. If you've at all an interest in the history of western culture — or in web-footed sex goddesses hatched from the scariest recesses of our collective imaginations — you should go.
Aphrodite and the Gods of Love
10am-9pm Tues, Fri, Sat; 10am-5pm Wed-Thur; 10am-6pm Sun
San Antonio Museum of Art
200 W Jones
Through February 17