Ancient Greek Pottery at the Williams College Museum
Friday night I was reading an article in the New Yorker about Herculaneum. It’s the lesser known ancient Italian city that was covered by ash during the same eruption of Mount Vesuvius that covered Pompeii.
Herculaneum has only been partially excavated, but in 1752 a library of papyrus scrolls were found there. And since then people have been trying to figure out a way to unroll them with the scrolls falling apart into hundreds of pieces. They’re believed to contain some of the missing writings of ancient Greek and Roman philosophers, poets and historians. The article explains how there’s now technology that may be able to read the scrolls without unrolling them. Don’t ask me to explain that part, I could barely understand what I was reading.
But those details didn’t matter. I was fascinated by all the history and the descriptions of the ink and the papyrus used to create the scrolls. And as I was reading the article the idea popped into my head that I needed to go to the Williams College Museum.
So on Saturday, we went. The Williams College Museum is about 50 minutes from us in Williamstown MA. It’s small, but has a serious permanent collection. A mix of ancient, historical and contemporary art , that is always changing, and always has a new contemporary exhibit. I wasn’t sure exactly what I was looking for when I went to the museum, but when I walked into the room with the ancient Greek Pottery, I knew I was on the right track.
It was a big room with only a few pieces in it. I thought of how many times I’ve been to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and breezed through the rooms of Greek Pottery. There’s so much of it, it’s like being in one of those giant box stores, I could just never look at it all or even just choose one to focus on. And I was never really interested in it.
There were only about five pieces of pottery and I devoured each of them with my eyes. Then I came to the cabinet with the scrap of papyrus with words on it. It was the writings of the Greek Philosopher Epicurus. Not from the scrolls I had read about, but close enough.
The Papyrus somehow got me to the museum, but it wasn’t the Holy Grail. I found myself looking at a lot of the other art in the museum with the same intensity. Usually when I go to a museum I walk through the rooms, finding one or two pieces to concentrate on. This time so much of art got my attention and held it. I didn’t even realize how much time I was spending looking, until two hours later when Jon told me. Usually we’re in sync when we go to museums. This time it was like it was just me and the art.
I was drawn to all those fine lines in the figures on the Greek Pottery, the simplicity and elegance. And the clarity of the story that each vase told. The texture and ware was visceral, some of the less preserved images faded to nothing. And it wasn’t the content, but was the line and the edge and the physical “feel” that pulled me to the other art I was interested in looking at too.
So I’m not sure what happened, or how this experience will work its way into my art. But I’m glad I listened to the voice that told me to go to the Museum. It was a fulfilling couple of hours. Like eating a really tasty meal with someone I love. My eyes were hungry when I got to the museum, and when I left, they were satisfied.
A detail from one of the other Ancient Greek Vases (the figure on the right reminds me of a Picasso figure)