The Forgotten Olympic Exhibition: Georg Alexander Mathéy’s Contribution to the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin.Posted: August 2, 2022
BY ALEXANDRA KANKELEIT
Alexandra Kankeleit is a German-Greek archaeologist and historian. She has been researching German archaeology in Greece during the Nazi period for several years. Since July 2021 she has been working for the CeMoG (Centrum Modernes Griechenland) at the Freie Universität Berlin, where she will teach a seminar on the 1936 Summer Olympics in the upcoming winter semester. Here she contributes an essay about the German artist Georg Alexander Mathéy (1884-1968), who lived in Greece in the 1930s and whose work was displayed in the Summer Olympics of 1936.
The Badische Landesbibliothek in Karlsruhe (BLB) has held a large part of the estate of painter and writer Georg Alexander Mathéy (1884-1968) since 1993. In 2017, the BLB organized an exhibition, titled Sprachbilder – Bildersprache: Die Künstler Helene Marcarover und Georg Alexander Mathéy, to showcase the works of Mathéy together with those of another artist, the painter and poet Helene Markarova (1904-1992). Both artists, whose work was shaped by the two wars, by migration and alienation, were able through literature to transform images into words, and vice versa. A wonderful accompanying publication provides insights into Mathéy’s life and creative work (Axtmann – Stello 2017).
Trained as an architect in Budapest, Mathéy made his name as an illustrator of numerous books and magazines, achieving commercial success already at a young age. He also designed stamps, textiles, and a Rosenthal coffee service. Two of his stamp designs are still remembered today because of their intense colors and memorable motifs: the “bricklayer” (1919) and the “post horn” (1951). They can be described as classics of German stamp design.
In addition to this modern, highly reductivist formal language, Mathéy also mastered other, more traditional media, primarily in his large-scale watercolors and oil paintings.
I became interested in Mathéy’s largely forgotten contribution to the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. The starting point is material from the archives of the BLB, which provided new and important information about Mathéy. (I would like to thank the director of the BLB, Julia Hiller von Gaertringen, for her interest and active support in my project. A detailed German version of this article can be found on the BLBlog.) Further information can also be found in an unpublished research paper on Georg Alexander Mathéy, which the designer Ulrike Jänichen completed in 2003 under the direction of Professor Mechthild Lobisch at the Burg Giebichenstein Kunsthochschule in Halle. She kindly made her work available to me.
How did Mathéy come to be associated with Greece?
In 1926 Mathéy met in Leipzig his second wife, the piano soloist Polyxene Roussopoulos (1902-1999), daughter of chemist Othon Roussopoulos, who contributed to the conservation of the bronzes in the National Archaeological Museum (Moraitou 2020). Ιt was love at first sight (as claimed by their son Alexander Mathéy). Polyxene had a very close connection to Germany for family reasons. Her grandparents had lived in Leipzig for several years and German was the predominant language spoken at home. Mathéy, cosmopolitan by nature but also a Transylvanian Saxon of Greek descent (Ματθαίου) from Hermannstadt, in turn, felt a strong connection to Greece. Greek ancestry and Orthodox faith must have also played a role in his decision to move to Greece. He was not the only one. In the interwar period, several German artists who were particularly enthusiastic about the country’s landscape, culture, and extraordinary light came to Greece. These included, for example, painters Alexander Mohr and Conrad Westpfahl, and photographers Herbert List and Hermann Wagner (the last also worked in the Athenian Agora excavations).
In 1931 Georg and Polyxene moved to Greece. He was to remain there until December 1940. The Greco-Italian War, the invasion of the Wehrmacht, and the subsequent occupation of Greece from April 1941 to October 1944, ended his stay in Greece and also led to his separation from Polyxene, who did not want to leave her homeland under any circumstances.
What role did Greece play in Mathéy’s artistic work?
Mathéy’s love of Greece is evident in numerous paintings, sketches, drawings, and texts, most of which were printed in newspaper articles and books. He was well connected to the so-called German colony in Athens and was highly respected and supported by a number of influential people. These included representatives of the German legation, senior staff of the German Archaeological Institute and the German School of Athens (Deutsche Schule Athen), and several members of the German press. His pleasing, never polarizing style was obviously in demand, so he had no shortage of commissions. Light, almost floating compositions of bright, harmoniously flowing colors were characteristic of his work. His paintings from the 1930s appear serene and calming – far removed from the extreme political and social events in Germany and Greece.
In 1933 he had the opportunity to present his work to a larger audience. Under the patronage of the representative of the German legation in Athens, Ernst Eisenlohr, and following a laudatory opening speech by the director of the German Archaeological Institute in Athens, Georg Karo, Mathéy was admitted onto the Mt. Olympus of contemporary artists in Greece (BLB, Nachlass Georg Alexander Mathéy, K3328D38,116; Reyle 1933).
In 1934, he created a monumental wall mosaic for the German Protestant Church in Athens on Sina Street, which was intended to lend a colorful accent to the subdued style of the Bauhaus building.
The entrance portal is framed by two angels, who serve as a reminder of an important event in German-Greek history: the heroic struggle from 1821 to 1829 by German Philhellenes for the liberation of Greece from Turkish rule (according to the editorial in the Neue Athener Zeitung of April 21, 1935).
Mathéy and the Olympics of 1936
In the run-up to the 1936 Summer Olympics, numerous actions took place in Germany to express the cultural superiority of the German Reich, its progressiveness and modernity, but also its close relationship to ancient Greece. The torch relay, as well as several exhibitions about sports in ancient and modern times, were intended to highlight Germany’s outstanding role as the “guardian of the Holy Grail of the Olympic Idea” (source: the newspaper “Stettiner General-Anzeiger” of December 31, 1934, Carl and Liselott Diem Archive of the German Sport University Cologne). The Nazi regime spared no effort or expense to set in motion a gigantic propaganda machine. During the Olympic Games themselves, from August 1 to 16, 1936, at least eight exhibitions were held in Berlin alone (Führer 1936, 59-64).
One of the most important exhibitions, titled “Sport of the Hellenes” (Sport der Hellenen), took place on the Museum Island in Berlin. It was advertised in all media and would eventually count over 100,000 visitors. Little known and so far barely studied is Mathéy’s participation in this exhibition. In 1935, he had been commissioned by Theodor Lewald, the president of the German Organizing Committee (OC) of the Olympic Games, to produce four large-scale paintings of ancient sites in Greece (BLB, Nachlass Georg Alexander Mathéy, K 3328 C 71 3 and K 3328 C 71 10). The “Greek Circle,” a series of romantic paintings of Greece by the Bavarian painter Carl Rottman (1797-1850), must have served as inspiration.
“Sport of the Hellenes”
On July 16, 1936, the exhibition “Sport of the Hellenes” was officially opened in the former German Museum, in the north wing of the Pergamon Museum (Führer 1936, 42). The catalogue and a few surviving photographs give us a glimpse of the selection and arrangement of the exhibits. Plaster casts of famous Greek sculptures were presented in the main hall of the German Museum (Lehmann 2003). These were exclusively representations of male athletes. In addition, there were smaller objects from various German museums, mainly vases, bronze figures, and marble fragments. The exhibition organizers were particularly proud of the fact that all objects (plaster casts and originals) were owned by Germans. However, it was not the German plaster casts that were illustrated in the catalog, but the originals in Greece (Blümel 1936).
Special importance was attached to a plaster-cast model of Olympia by the architect Hans Schleif. It was presented in the anteroom of the exhibition and was originally intended to be framed by Mathéy’s pictures of Greece. Shortly before the opening of the exhibition, those responsible – Theodor Lewald, Theodor Wiegand and Carl Blümel – rejected this plan. To Mathéy’s great displeasure, his paintings were moved to another part of the Museum Island (Axtmann – Stello 2017, 101).
The second part of the exhibition was held in the Neues Museum, which could be reached via an above-ground connecting passage from the Pergamon Museum (for the connecting corridors, see the YouTube film by Katrin und Hans Georg Hiller von Gaertringen, starting at 20:30). The corresponding exhibition space was renamed the “Olympia Hall” at short notice. Mathéy’s paintings with scenes from the Acropolis, Delphi, Epidauros and Olympia were presented together with other items in the skylight gallery of the Egyptian Court in the Neues Museum. Mathéy described the room as a “gloomy box that makes any contemplation impossible” (BLB, Nachlass Georg Alexander Mathéy, K 3328 C 71 7). Previously inaccessible, the room had served for storage of plaster casts from Olympia since the 1920s.
About a hundred shots of Olympia by the photographer Walter Hege (1893-1955) were also exhibited in the same room, again to Matthey’s dissatisfaction. His correspondence reveals that he did not particularly appreciate Hege’s work, although a deeper conflict between the media of “painting” and “photography” may have been the underlying cause. In any case, Hege was courted by sports officials and art scholars during the Olympics in a way that certainly aroused envy among his colleagues. “The guy makes a fuss about his photos as if there were no other photographer in the world” Matthey scribbled in his diary (BLB, Nachlass Georg Alexander Mathéy, K 3328 A 42,1 and K 3328 D 38,87; December 4, 1935).
Unfortunately, there is no documentation for this part of the exhibition. Only a few photos show the plaster casts of the Temple of Zeus in Olympia, which had already been placed in the skylight gallery of the Egyptian Court before 1936 (Berger 2018, 90-93). On the basis of Mathéy’s correspondence and several newspaper articles, however, it is possible to reconstruct how Mathéy’s pictures and Hege’s photographs were presented to visitors: Mathéy’s pictures were hung on the narrow sides of the room and Hege’s photographs were attached to the “superstructure in the middle gallery,” i.e., presumably on the balustrade of the skylight gallery (BLB, Nachlass Georg Alexander Mathéy, K 3328 C 71 20).
In the Olympia Hall of the New Museum, where the completed casts of the pediment figures of the Temple of Zeus hang, are exhibited the four Greek landscapes painted by Professor A. Mathéy on behalf of the Organizing Committee for the XI Olympic Games. Mathéy has lived in Athens for several years. The attempt to create a cycle of decorative Greek landscapes was successful. Mathéy continues a tradition that had been torn off since Rottmann’s Munich frescoes. The views of the present-day Olympia and the Acropolis, the Delphic Stadium, and the theater at Epidauros have the “grand manner” trait essential to decorative painting. At the same time, however, they are painted loosely and lightly, with thin application, with delicate modulations. The technique of breaking the surface into shades and rebuilding it from delicate tones comes from Cézanne. It is treated summarily here. But the colorful atmosphere of the Greek landscape, covered with delicate veils, echoes in us, its grace and Arcadian character.
The impact of Olympic participation: Later success in Greece and Germany.
Although Mathéy strongly resented the banishment of his paintings from the German Museum in the north wing of the Pergamon Museum, he subsequently received great recognition both in Germany and in Greece. Two of his works – “The Acropolis of Athens” and “The Delphic Stadium” – were bought by the Reich Aviation Ministry in Berlin in 1936.
At the end of 1936, the German-Greek Society in Athens organized a special exhibition for Mathéy, presenting his works in Greece. It was very well received both by experts and interested laymen and was even visited by King George II. Reviews in German and Greek newspapers testify to his great success. On February, 4 1937, Mathéy was awarded the Silver Cross of the Order of St. George: “H.M. King George II of Greece has awarded the German painter Prof. Georg A. Mathéy, artistic collaborator at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, the Silver Cross of the Order of St. George in recognition of his services to German-Greek cultural cooperation. As is well known, Prof. Mathéy created four large paintings of Greek landscapes for the Olympic exhibition, two of which have since been purchased by the Reich Aviation Ministry.” (Extract from the newspaper Neue Athener Zeitung, February 6, 1937, BLB Nachlass Georg Alexander Mathéy, K 3328 D 38,32).
Eventually and inevitably Mathéy’s fame reached the leading circles of the Nazi state. In 1942 Albert Speer, Reich Minister for Armament and Ammunition, commissioned Mathéy to produce three more paintings with views of Greece. “I am working for Professor Speer on three large Greek landscapes, which will later be used to decorate public buildings,” wrote Mathéy to archaeologist Peter Goessler on October 19, 1942 (Wuppertal Municipal Archives, Nachlass Wilhelm Dörpfeld, NDS 23 No. 16).
Whether Mathéy carried out this commission is uncertain. In addition, his four paintings for the exhibition “Art of the Hellenes” were most likely destroyed during the bombing of Berlin: “How sad that all your beautiful works in Berlin have been destroyed” wrote Lewald to Mathéy on December 25, 1944 (BLB, Nachlass Georg Alexander Mathéy, K 3328 B 545 2). World War II ended the Greek chapter in Mathéy’s life and work. Divorced from Polyxene, he would marry again in 1945 and make a new start in Germany. He continued to visit Greece (and his son Alexander) as his museum pass from 1961 shows. Polyxene Mathéy (a cousin of Greek dancer, Koula Pratsika), an enlightened woman, made a career in Greece both as a music teacher and a choreographer, founding her own dance school and participating with her students in various performances of ancient drama.
Although Georg Alexander Mathéy is nearly forgotten today, he left behind works characteristic of his time, such as his stamp designs in Germany and the mosaic for the German Protestant Church in Athens. These invite reflection and further investigation by modern scholars. The fact that Mathéy and many other European artists, such as the ones mentioned above (Alexander Mohr, Conrad Westpfahl, Herbert List and Hermann Wagner) but also the likes of Piet de Jong and Georg von Peschke, chose to move to Athens in the 1930s, it is indicative of the city’s intellectual life that embraced modernism and avant-garde culture.
Axtmann A. and A. Stello (eds.) 2017. Sprachbilder – Bildersprache: Die Künstler Helene Marcarover und Georg Alexander Mathéy. Begleitpublikation zur Ausstellung in der Badischen Landesbibliothek Karlsruhe vom 12. Juli 2017 bis 30. September 2017, Karlsruhe.
Berger, F. 2018. “Apollon und Zeus in Berlin. Zur Aufstellungsgeschichte der Giebelgruppen vom olympischen Zeustempel,” in: M. Maischberger and B. Feller (eds.), Außenräume in Innenräumen. Die musealen Raumkonzeptionen von Walter Andrae und Theodor Wiegand im Pergamonmuseum, Berlin 2018, 75-102
Blümel, C. 1936. Sport der Hellenen, Berlin
Führer zur Feier der XI. Olympiade Berlin 1936. Herausgegeben vom Organisationskomitee für die XI. Olympiade Berlin 1936, Berlin 1936: digital copy
Hege, W. and G. Rodenwaldt, 1936. Olympia, Berlin.
Lehmann, S. 2003. ” ‘Sport der Hellenen’ – Die Berliner Ausstellung von 1936 und der jüdische Archäologe Alfred Schiff (1863-1939),” in: A. Höfer, M. Lämmer and K. Lennartz (eds.), Olympische Spiele. Olympic Games. Jeux Olympiques, special edition of the journal Stadion: Internationale Zeitschrift für Geschichte des Sports 29, 2003, 199-220.
Moraitou, G. 2020. Othon Rousopoulos and the Early History of Archaeological Conservation in Greece, Athens.
Oppeln-Bronikowski, F. 1935/36. “Die Olympia-Ausstellung ‘Sport der Hellenen’ im Deutschen Museum, Berlin,” in: Die Kunst für alle: Malerei, Plastik, Graphik, Architektur 51/12, 284-288 : digital copy
Reyle, R. 1933. Der Maler Georg Alexander Mathéy (Athens 1933) : digital copy
“Sadly, the best candidate for him, the beautifully carved [head] 3, facing right, was stolen from the Agora’s dig house in 1955, while the Stoa of Attalos was under construction.” This sentence caught my attention while reading “Classical Sculpture from the Athenian Agora, Part 2: The Friezes of the Temple of Ares (Temple of Athena Pallenis),” published in Hesperia 88 (2019) by Andrew Stewart and seven co-authors (E. Driscoll, S. Estrin, N. J. Gleason, E. Lawrence, R. Levitan, S. Lloyd-Knauf, and K. Turbeville). Further below in the catalog entry for the head, the exact date of the theft is also mentioned: August 22, 1955.
Stewart et al. refer to a fragmentary male head of high craftsmanship that was found in the Athenian Agora near the northeast corner of the Temple of Ares in 1933. Carved around 430-425 B.C. and identified as Hermes, the small head (H.: 0.147m) is one of forty-nine half-size marble fragments which once decorated the friezes of the Temple of Ares in the Agora (originally the Temple of Athena Pallenis at Pallene). A plan of the Agora with the findspots of the sculptures is included in the Hesperia article, and is also available at https://ascsa.net.
Thefts occur in even the best guarded museums and libraries. Every institution has its own story (or stories) to share or hide. And at least some thefts are committed by those who have “hands-on” access to the collections. A recent example was the return of two valuable journals of Charles Darwin, which were stolen two decades ago from the library of Cambridge University. Others remain lost–the paintings stolen from the Isabella Gardner Museum in Boston in 1990, or the Telephus head, an original by Skopas, removed from the Tegea Museum in 1992.
But back to the little head of Hermes that was inventoried as S 305. I was curious to discover more about its theft. A search in the Archives of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA or the School hereafter) yielded considerable information about the event and its aftermath.
On September 6, 1955, the School’s Director, John L. Caskey, found himself in the unpleasant position of reporting to the Chair of the Managing Committee, Charles H. Morgan, that “one of the fine small marble heads from the Altar of Ares in the Agora was stolen recently. You will remember that a series of these heads was on a window sill in the inner courtyard. The head was twisted out of its plaster base. The loss was reported to the Ephor, the Symvoulion discussed it (not unsympathetically, according to George Mylonas), the police were notified, and small notices appeared in the papers. Modiano, who is very alert, picked it up immediately and put a bit in the Times of London. I wonder whether the story reached America. There’s nothing more we can do except, as Homer [Thompson] says, hurry up and move to the Stoa” (AdmRec Box 318/5, folder 8). [The photo on the left and its title are reproduced from Stewart et al. 2019.]
There was a delay of about two weeks between the theft (August 22) and Caskey’s report to Morgan because the School’s Director was not informed immediately. Apparently the staff members of the Agora were slow to convey the news either to the School’s Director or to the Ephor of the Acropolis, John Meliades. Eugene Vanderpool, who was in charge of the Agora Excavations when its Director Homer Thompson was in America, wrote to Thompson on August 29 (seven days after the theft). “Meliades came down this morning and I told him all the details. He was sympathetic and helpful. Later in the morning I took him a written account of the affair drawn up by Kyriakides [Aristeides Kyriakides was the School’s lawyer]… [and] I enclosed several pictures” (Homer A. Thompson Papers, box 68, folder 4).
Since the head had never been published, Meliades urged Vanderpool “to publish it as soon as possible so as to make public the claim to it.” The next day Vanderpool supplied journalist Makis Lekkas of Vima (BHMA) and Nea (NEA) with a short text and a photo which gave the appearance that the Hermes’ head had just been found during cleaning operations in the area of the Temple of Ares. Vanderpool further suggested to Thompson that the theft should be included in the School’s Annual Report, “so that it will become known in the scholarly world. Then if an attempt is made to sell it to a museum it can be identified. Meliades tells me that if a foreign museum buys it, the Greek Gov[ernmen]t can reclaim it as stolen property under existing international agreements.” As planned, on August 31, a short piece appeared at NEA, titled “Σημαντικά ευρήματα εις την Αρχαίαν Αγοράν” (Important finds at the Ancient Agora).
Meliades immediately reported the theft to the Archaeological Council. An off-the-record note by Mylonas, who was present at the Council’s meeting, suggested that members were understanding and “that while it was too bad, such things do happen occasionally.” The Minister of Education, who presided over the Council, personally telephoned the police and reported the theft (Homer A. Thompson Papers, box 68, folder 4, Vanderpool to Thompson, Sept. 1, 1955).
The Cat’s Out of the Bag
Just as he was about to mail his letter, Vanderpool rushed to add a last-minute postscript: “It looks as though the cat were out of the bag. Today’s NEA reports the theft, having gotten it from police bulletin. Modiano [the Greek correspondent in London] called up at 12.10 for more details… and it will be in London Times.” On September 2, the London Times published a note together with a photo of the stolen head: “500 B.C. Bust Stolen from Museum.” By then the Director of the School must have also found out about the theft although there is no mention of Caskey in the dispatches that Vanderpool sent to Thompson or in all their dealings with the Archaeological service.
After that initial interest, the press dropped the matter quickly, but not the Archaeological Service. On September 9, Spyridon Marinatos, Director of Antiquities, Christos Karouzos, Director of the National Archaeological Museum, and Ephor John Meliades visited the “scene of the crime” and met with Vanderpool. Three days later Caskey received an official reprimand signed by the Minister of Education, Achilleas Gerokostopoulos. In it, the School was accused of having inexcusably delayed, almost by a week, in informing the Service of the theft. As a result, the police had lost valuable time. The School was also reproached for not storing such a prime piece of sculpture in a safer location; instead it was in an exposed and unsecure location. Finally, by not publishing it for twenty-two years, the School had made repatriation more difficult in case it had already been smuggled outside Greece (Homer A. Thompson Papers, box 111 folder 1, enclosed in a letter from Caskey to Thompson, Sept. 16, 1955).
“The School gets a black eye out of this, which could have been avoided if we had reported the loss to Meliades at once. In the future I’d like to hear from the Agora staff immediately whenever anything happens that may affect our standing or relations with the officials and the local public,” Caskey rebuked Thompson. The rest of Caskey’s letter referred to the animosities between Greece and Turkey “over the Cyprus business,” and the progress that had been made concerning the reconstruction of the Stoa of Attalos: “The fluting of the eight columns is a fine sight.”
Morgan writing to Vanderpool from the other side of the Atlantic was more sympathetic about the theft. “It is a pity it has gone. I remember it well and believed it to be by one of the sculptors of the Parthenon frieze. Unfortunately this is the kind of thing that happens in the best of regulated museums, one of these things that no number of special guards or protective devices can entirely obviate… such as Princeton three years ago with three Rembrandt prints stolen during a commencement exhibition” (AdmRec 318/5 folder 8, September 13, 1955).
There is one last mention of the stolen head in the School’s records. On September 24, 1955, Vanderpool writing again to Thompson referred to some fake news about the missing head: “A clue which led to the Elsa Maxwell cruise proved false. Someone on the cruise had indeed bought a small head but it was not ours. It is a long and rather amusing story. Dick [Richard Hubbard] Howland knows it and would be glad to tell it if he sees you. I may write it someday.” Vanderpool also added that the Agora staff had “closed the courtyard to the general public: too bad, but really much better so” (Homer A. Thompson Papers, box 68, folder 4).
Maxwell (1883-1963) was a famous gossip columnist who was known for entertaining high-society guests at her parties and being friends with celebrities such as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Aristotle Onassis and Maria Callas. In late August 1955 Maxwell together with actress Olivia de Havilland organized a 15-day cruise in the Aegean for 113 members of European royalty and other high-society types, aboard the luxury yacht Achilleus, lent by the Greek shipping magnate, Stavros Niarchos. Although Maxwell’s cruise was not connected to the theft, cruise boats or merchant ships were the main vehicles for smuggling antiquities out of Greece before and after WW II, including the famous New York kouros in the Metropolitan Museum.
Eight Months Later and a Riddle
In search of more information about the stolen marble head, I continued to read correspondence between Caskey and Morgan, whose main concern was the progress of work on the Stoa of Attalos and plans for its inauguration in the late summer of 1956. There I came across a letter titled “Confidential” that Morgan sent to Caskey on May 15, 1956 soon after the May Meeting of the School’s Managing Committee (AdmRec 318/5 folder 9). While in New York, Morgan paid a visit to Christine Alexander (1893-1975), Curator of Greek and Roman Art at the Metropolitan Museum. Morgan was on a mission (sent by Caskey) to see Alexander about a delicate matter, the return to Greece of some object. “Not knowing exactly what approach to take I said ‘I am at your service if you need me’.” Morgan was surprised not so much by the position Alexander took but “from the indomitable conviction with which she spoke.” “Her opinion is that the Metropolitan bought the article in good faith, that the Metropolitan’s funds are charitable funds, invested for the benefit of the people of New York, that it would be improper to ask the citizens of New York to pay for the carelessness of a local museum.” For a moment I wondered if they were talking about the Agora marble head.
But then Alexander further pressed her arguments by pointing out “that the figure had not been published in anything that seems to have reached this country [America], that when the figure was stolen, though everyone knows that such material drifts to the New York market, no notification was received by the Metropolitan nor so far she [knew] by any other museum or private collector.” It was obvious that she was talking about something else, a figure, not a head, that had been stolen from a Greek museum.
Morgan tried to counteract her arguments by saying that if he were a Trustee of the Metropolitan faced with such a problem “I would immediately dig into my own pocket and the pockets of my fellow Trustees to reimburse the city for the cost of the figure and restore it to its original position.” He further added that “this was the time for American institutions to make such gestures and [he] would strongly advise that it be done with the greatest possible attendant publicity.
To which Alexander strongly disagreed believing that it would have had the opposite effect. “Well, we made the rascals give up the swag” Morgan quoted her saying. Morgan promised Caskey that he would continue to press the matter: “I will do everything I can to effect what seems to me a solution indicated morally if not legally.”
I found Caskey’s response in Morgan’s files. In a long letter written from Lerna on May 27, 1956, about a host of issues concerning the reconstruction of the Stoa of Attalos, Caskey finally came to the matter of dispute with the Metropolitan Museum.
I consider it of the greatest importance that the piece be returned. I had not supposed for a minute that there could be any doubt about that. It was published in an extensive study with three clear photographs… And if the funds of the people of New York were misspent by accident –for goodness sake that is no reason for being righteous.AdmRec 310/14, folder 10, Caskey to Morgan, May 27, 1956
The School’s good name was at risk: “… unless the bronze is returned promptly and gracefully, the good name of American archaeologists in Greece, and so of the School, is going to suffer a sharp blow. The French acted just right, asking no credit for returning the bronze that had been stolen (by others, of course) from Samos; and they received a lot of credit and good will from the Greek Ministry, and archaeologists. By contrast, we should look worse than Elgin,” concluded Caskey.
But what was the apple of discord? The only bronze figure that the Met acquired in 1955 was a small Hellenistic statuette of a rider wearing an elephant cap, and this seemed to have originated from Egypt. It does not seem that this was the figure that Greece wanted back and the Met refused to return. I have not been able to solve the riddle of the bronze figure. It also appears that the issue had not been resolved by April 1957, when Caskey, in another letter to Morgan, confessed that “just now I have had to report failure in my attempt to intercede in the matter of the missing work of art, about which you know, and this news of American irresponsibility [Caskey must be referring to the Met] made a really dismal impression on my Greek colleagues” (AdmRec 318/6, folder 2, April 18, 1957).
Although seemingly unrelated, the two cases point to the widening gap between art historians staffing American museums and field archaeologists, such as Caskey and Morgan, working in Greece in the 1950s. The former still operated under 19th century colonial terms, while the latter, especially Caskey, understood that following WW II there was a new world order in Greece to be taken into account and respected, despite his father having been Curator of Classical Art at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Although even he occasionally found the situation frustrating, he observed that both leftist archaeologists such as Meliades and conservatives such as Marinatos were justified in their belief that the foreign schools continued to be unreasonably critical of the work of their Greek colleagues.
It is of course easy enough for the [foreign] schools to criticize the Greek service in turn and point out its weaknesses, as well as the good that the foreigners do for Greece. But ultimately the Greeks are right; this is their country and they must make their own decisions.Caskey confided to Morgan in late 1956 (AdmRec 318/6, folder 1, December 29, 1956)
As for stolen antiquities, such as the Hermes head from the Agora, the more publicity they receive the better it is. It is unclear how widely news of this loss circulated in 1955. Besides the short note in the London Times, I could not find a single reference in the newspapers.com database. The first time that a photo of the Hermes’ head appeared in a scholarly publication was in 1986 (Harrison 1986). Even if some of the large American museums were aware of its theft in the late 1950s, it is almost certain that, as curatorial staff retired or died (and with them institutional memory), the Hermes head moved from the top of the museums’ “hot list” to the bottom, when its photo was transferred to some institutional archive as an inactive record. It is laudable that the authors of the recent Hesperia article flagged its lost status several times in their essay. It remains out there somewhere, waiting to be repatriated to Greece.
Chatzi, G. (ed.) 2018. Γιάννης Μηλιάδης. Γράμματα στην Έλλη. Αλληολγραφία με την Έλλη Λαμπρίδη 1915-1937, Athens.
Harrison, E.B. 1986. “The Classical High-Relief Frieze from the Athenian Agora,” in Archaische und klassische griechische Plastik. Akten des internationalen Kolloquiums vom 22.–25. April 1985 in Athen 2: Klassische griechische Plastik, ed. H. Kyrieleis, Mainz, pp. 109–117.
Stewart, A., E. Driscoll, S. Estrin, N.J. Gleason, E. Lawrence, R. Levitan, S. Lloyd-Knauf, K. Turbeville, 2019. “Classical Sculpture from the Athenian Agora, Part 2: The Friezes of the Temple of Ares (Temple of Athena Pallenis),” Hesperia 88:4, pp. 625-705.
BY CURTIS RUNNELS – PRISCILLA MURRAY
Curtis Runnels, Professor of Archaeology at Boston University and an expert in Palaeolithic archaeology in Greece, and his wife Priscilla Murray, an anthropologist and Classical archaeologist, here contribute to From the Archivist’s Notebook a story about their purchase of a sketchbook from the early 20th century with watercolors depicting places and people on Crete.
We visited an antiquarian bookfair in Concord, New Hampshire, about twelve years ago and a booth belonging to a dealer from Vermont, who specialized in original artwork, caught our eye. Sorting through piles of miscellaneous materials, we found a few things relating to Greece, and a small (8 by 4 inches; 20 x 10 cm) artist’s sketchbook grabbed our attention. It was displayed on a table opened to a watercolor view that seemed familiar. Surely it was the entrance to the harbor at Herakleion on Crete! And indeed, penciled in one corner was the inscription “Candia,” the older name for the city which both confirmed the identification and provided a clue that the sketchbook, as dealers in antiques like to say, “had some age.” There were other artworks in the sketchbook that are dated to April 1905, and still others with various dates in 1915, and one dated to 1916. The artwork from 1905 was the most interesting for us. Turning the pages of the sketchbook we saw line drawings of dancers at Knossos and a man drawing water from a well in Siteia, pastels of houses labeled Knossos and “Sitia, as well as watercolors and line drawings of Mykonos, Ios, and other Cycladic islands, Sounion, and Athens. The unknown artist was interested particularly in the new Minoan finds from Knossos as is evident from the line drawings of wall paintings and artifacts in the “Candia Museum.”
Although there is no artist’s signature, we guessed that the artist must be someone interesting, perhaps even someone we would recognize. After all, how many Americans or British travelers (the fact that the titles are in English is the reason for assuming the nationality of the artist) were sufficiently interested in Knossos and the Minoans to visit Crete in 1905 at a time when there was much unrest on the island? We bought the sketchbook and took it home to do more research.Read the rest of this entry »
In 1897 a young American woman announced in the newspapers her return to Chicago after a year in Europe. “Miss Mabel Gordon Dunlap of Michigan Boulevard, who has been in Europe for a year, will sail for home on Wednesday” (Chicago Inter Ocean, August 15, 1897). The same woman had also made an earlier announcement that she was still in London “spending most of her time at the British Museum” (17 July 1897). While in London she printed a handsome pamphlet, titled “A Critical Study of Sculpture and Painting,” that contained information about her as a teacher and a lecturer, and a summary of two art courses that she was “ready to deliver before ladies’ clubs and schools” in the winter: “A Course of Twelve Lectures on the History & Philosophy of Greek Sculpture,” and “A Course of Twelve Lectures of the History of Painting in Italy.” While in England she had attended lectures by Charles Waldstein, Professor of Fine Arts at Cambridge University (and former Director of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens), whom she quoted in her brochure: “There are those who make art, there are those who enjoy art, and there are those who understand art.” Dunlap’s courses, fully illustrated with stereopticon views, were designed to help people understand art.Read the rest of this entry »
BY CURTIS RUNNELS – PRISCILLA MURRAY
Curtis Runnels, Professor of Archaeology at Boston University and an expert in Palaeolithic archaeology in Greece, and his wife Priscilla Murray, an anthropologist and Classical archaeologist, here contribute to From the Archivist’s Notebook a story about the purchase of a miniature portrait of an elegant, young woman in an antique fair, their research to identify both the subject of the portrait and its creator, and, finally, their thrilling discovery.
Even from a distance, the small portrait of a beautiful young woman had a commanding presence. We bought the miniature watercolor on ivory (less than 10 by 8 cm) at an antique fair in Holliston, a town near Boston, Massachusetts, because the sitter was dressed a la Gréque with a Greek column in the background. The quality of the painting, which points to a very accomplished miniaturist, together with the appearance and accoutrements of the subject, suggest that the painting was an important commission by a socially prominent person. We loved the painting, and of course, we were intensely interested in the identity of the young woman.