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'Aphrodite and the Gods of Love' intoxicates at SAMA

Photo: Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei. Museo Archeologico di Napoli. Photo: © pedicinimages.com, License: N/A

Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei. Museo Archeologico di Napoli. Photo: © pedicinimages.com

Statue of Aphrodite from the amphitheater of Capua, Rome, AD 117-138.

Photo: Photo: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Henry Lillie Pierce Fund, License: N/A

Photo: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Henry Lillie Pierce Fund

Statuette of Eros wearing the lionskin of Herakles, Greek, East Greek, late 1st century BC.


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.)

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