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Greek, Attic, attributed to the Berlin Painter, Red-figure volute-krater: A, Achilles and Hektor; B, Achilles and Memnon, ca 490 BCE, ceramic, the British Museum (© the Trustees of the British Museum, image courtesy of the Princeton University Art Museum)

PRINCETON, NJ — Too many Greek vase jokes are lost in translation. For example, this duel between Achilles and Hector looks serious. But tragicomic ironies abound in ancient epic. The Trojan war started over a woman — Helen of Troy — and before this particular duel, Achilles chased a frightened Hector around the city three times before he would finally face him. That’s not exactly courageous, is it? The Princeton University Art Museum’s show The Berlin Painter and His World: Athenian Vase-Painting in the Early Fifth Century BC is not only the most important vase painting show in years, it’s also an opportunity to laugh with the ancients.

The Berlin Painter is a pseudonym. A scholar coined it after a masterpiece in a Berlin museum, whose style is strikingly similar to numerous other pieces. It became evident that the same artist or workshop made them all. Detractors gripe we’re encumbering ancient potters with a fictitious name and the modern baggage of artistic genius. But it’s robotic to rattle off anonymous Greek painters numbers 1 through 17, so let Berlin have this.

At Princeton, the exhibition’s introductory wall text doesn’t let on to the humor. “The Berlin Painter and His World is a celebration of ancient Greece and of the ideals of reason, proportion, and human dignity that are its legacy.” This doesn’t exactly live up to its own ideal of reason. It was never the goal of the Berlin Painter to leave a legacy to edify and dignify a future he never fathomed. Nor did he create his objects for museums to enlighten visitors. He made them for ancient symposia, which were far more debaucherous and playful than modern ones.  

In her catalogue essay, archaeologist Jenifer Neils lucidly explains the indulgent symposium:

Two prevalent institutions of Archaic Athens played a significant role in the imagery of vase-painting: the symposium and pederasty. Held in the andron, or men’s dining room, the symposium was an all-male entertainment that took place in the evening and consisted of drinking wine, conversing, playing music, singing, dancing, competing in drinking games (e.g. kottabos), and reveling on the way home (komos). Reclining on couches (klinai), the drinkers were served by young boys and entertained by flute girls and courtesans and/or prostitutes (hetairai). Because the majority of Attic vase shapes were used in the symposium… their imagery often illustrates these activities.

For example, one work in the show features an image of Herakles reclining and drinking, which can help us to envision the original, imbibing viewers of these ceramic vessels.

Greek, Attic, attributed to the Berlin Painter, Red-figure bell-krater: A, Herakles; B, Satyr, ca 500–490 BCE, ceramic, Paris, Louvre Museum, Department of Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities (© C2RMF / Anne Chauvet, image courtesy Princeton University Art Museum)

Two recent books from Cambridge University Press take up the enduring humor of Greek ceramics, examining how comic imagery on vases and pots punctuated this debauchery. Alexandre Mitchell’s Greek Vase Painting and the Origins of Visual Humor and David Walsh’s Distorted Ideals in Greek Vase Paintings: the World of Mythological Burlesque allude to a sea change in how a new generation of scholars is approaching these artifacts. Many of the scenes depicted functioned like Saturday Night Live skits, offering comic relief to onlookers as they indulged.

For example, Zeus, not pictured, lusts after Ganymede, pictured below, in one object on view. It’s not just funny because it’s gay, it’s funny because it’s Zeus. Imagine if the leader of the gods was a sex addict and, like Bill Clinton, he always got away with it. How reassuring Zeus must have been to carousing men in symposia scheming to get away with cheating, too.

Greek, Attic, attributed to the Berlin Painter, Red-figure bell-krater: A, Ganymede; B, Zeus, ca 500–490 BCE, ceramic, Paris, Louvre Museum, Department of Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities (© RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY; image courtesy Prince University Art Museum)

But there is also a formal, visual joke at play on the Ganymede vase itself. Zeus is on one side, not pictured, while Ganymede is on the other, shown above. Zeus, like so many of us, wants what he doesn’t have, or, in his exceptional case, what he doesn’t have yet. He’s Zeus and he gets whatever he wants, eventually.

Another work in the exhibition tells the darkly funny story of Eos, the goddess of the dawn. Eos has the hots for Tithonus, so she asked Zeus to grant Tithonus immortality. The king of the gods threw her a bone and made it so. but there was a catch: Eos forgot to ask for Tithonus to remain eternally young, and so that poor man aged and aged but never keeled over.

Greek, Attic, attributed to the Berlin Painter, Red-figure amphora of Type A: A, Athena; B, Herakles, ca 500–490 BCE, ceramic, Antikenmuseum Basel und Sammlung Ludwig (image courtesy Antikenmuseum Basel und Sammlung Ludwig; image courtesy Princeton University Art Museum)

At first glance, some objects don’t seem especially comic or sexual, like the large vase depicting Athena pictured above. But who is telling Athena’s story? Sanitized Victorian versions pay us no favors when trying to access the mythological burlesque of this vase’s first viewers. Did Athena disfigure Medusa because she had sex in a temple? The beautiful Medusa was actually raped by Poseidon in Athena’s temple. Or was it because Athena was jealous that Medusa was as beautiful or — daresay — more beautiful than her? When Athena put Medusa’s head on her shield, was she warning other beautiful women? It’s an open question what Athena meant to ancient Greek viewers. We need to be vigilant that we don’t conflate loftier 19th-century allegories of divine wisdom with a  goddess who was jealous, capricious, and wrathful in source texts.

“For the gods too love a joke,” Socrates once quipped. The gods on these vases laughed. The capriciousness and levity of these pagans gods are far cries from the seriousness with which we approach Yahweh, Jesus, Allah, Buddha, and other deities today. We miss out on this humor when we don’t honor these ancient tricksters by approaching their iconography as playfully as the men drinking at the symposia where these vessels were first used. Don’t mute the echo of this laughter when you visit Princeton for this exhibition.

The Berlin Painter and His World: Athenian Vase-Painting in the Early Fifth Century BC is on view at the Princeton University Art Museum (Elm Drive, Princeton, New Jersey) through June 11.

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