Hundreds of treasures, one ancient-world superstar. RICHARD JINMAN looks on as St Petersburg’s State Hermitage Museum prepares an exhibition for Sydney.
Any reservations the Hermitage might have about sending three aircraft- loads of its fragile treasures to the other side of the world are masked by Russian stoicism. The stance is bolstered by state-of-the-art transport technology, an eye-watering insurance policy and an unshakeable belief that the Hermitage has a duty to act as a global museum.
As the Hermitage’s director, Mikhail Piotrovsky, says: ‘‘Art must travel. We must share our collections with the nna Trofimova has five figurines on her desk in a library deep inside the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. One of them is Alexander the Great, a man who seized her imagination more than 30 years ago. Next to him is Napoleon, another great warrior. There’s a Buddha, a Greek idol and, rather incongruously, a replica Oscar.
‘‘Alexander, he is like a Hollywood star,’’ the museum’s head of classical antiquities says. ‘‘Like, ah, Michael Jackson. No, not Michael Jackson . . . like Marilyn Monroe!’’
The idea of Alexander, the Macedonian king who conquered the world in the 4th century BC, as the antecedent of today’s celebrity culture seems audacious. But it’s the kind of fresh perspective Trofimova, as curator, hopes the Australian Museum exhibition will inspire.
Alexander the Great: 2000 Years of Treasures, contains more than 400 artefacts from the Hermitage’s vast collection – everything from coins and jewellery to weapons and armour, frescos and statues.
Underpinning this extraordinary display is a thesis or, rather, several. It seeks to explain how Alexander transformed the world through military conquest, spreading Greek culture and art – Hellenism – from the shores of the Mediterranean to the deserts of central Asia and the borders of India. In the process, Alexander the man became Alexander the myth: a deity to some, a tyrant to others. His image, real, imagined and invented, was stamped on coins and in the faces of statues and idols, pervading cultures and creeds. He was, to bring things up to date, the first person to go viral.
‘‘ We [the curators] ask what was before Alexander and what was after,’’ Trofimova says. ‘‘It’s not just his story, but his impact on the world. For the first time the civilisations of the East and the West met. He brought civilisation; he founded cities, new cults and brought Greek language, art and administration. This is globalisation and it is the point of origin of our civilisation.’’
With just more than a month before the Australian exhibition’s opening on November 24, activity in the Hermitage’s labyrinthine corridors is frantic. Workers are sealing a two-metre Roman statue of Dionysus into a wooden crate. Nearby, a technician sits hunched over The world. It’s a good socialist term, but art belongs to the people.’’
Trofimova says the Australian Museum secured the show against fierce competition from museums in Greece, Italy and Canada. The Sydney institution lobbied hard and won.
‘‘ We had to choose,’’ she says. ‘‘For me, Australia is exciting because it’s a new world. And the theme of the spread of civilisation is very close to this country [Australia]. It’s why we decided to concentrate on this project.’’
Trofimova was a student at St Petersburg State University when her public’s imagination: sex appeal. Cleanshaven, unlike his hirsute forebears, he had a leonine mane, a penetrating gaze and the athleticism of a professional warrior. He was 22 when he began conquering the world and 32 when he died in Babylon in 323BC from fever. The ancient world’s most famous face would remain forever young. Such a potent blend of youth, good looks and all-conquering success is something the great men who followed have struggled to match.
‘‘Louis XIV, for example – old, ugly, fat,’’ Trofimova says. ‘‘Caesar and Stalin tutor handed her a book containing portraits of Alexander. She was intrigued and began to delve deeper. As her fascination grew, she began visiting some of the sites of Alexander’s great battles, which was no easy feat given the travel restrictions imposed on its citizens by Soviet Russia.
‘‘I was struck by this phenomenon in which it was hard to distinguish between man and god,’’ she says. ‘‘And why this young man – a boy, really – became the first global person. He thought he was the first political leader and he thought in terms of the planet. And that was the first time that had happened in history.’’
Besides history and geopolitics, there is another reason Alexander fires the were old. Napoleon was not sexy. But Alexander was very sexy. He was brave, died young and believed in his glory.’’
The real Alexander is as fascinating as the myth. A master tactician whose military strategies are still studied today, he displayed great humanity to the people he conquered. But he had a dark side, too: an incandescent temper and a love of drink. The combination proved deadly for his friend Cleitus, whom he killed during a drunken brawl.
No discussion of Alexander can ignore the question of his sexuality. His lifelong companion was Hephaestion, a childhood friend and lieutenant. Some scholars believe they were lovers, while others demur. The debate is complicated by the sexual and social mores of the era, but contemporary portrayals usually err on the side of platonicism. In Oliver Stone’s 2004 movie Alexander, for example, the king exchanges manly hugs and meaningful glances with Hephaestion, but the one torrid sex scene involves Alexander and his wife, Roxane.
The issue of the king’s sexuality was not part of the Alexander the Great exhibition when it was first staged at the Hermitage in 2007. Piotrovsky says: ‘‘Russian tradition is that things like this [homosexuality] do exist but it’s not to be discussed . . . That’s why it’s so important to make exhibitions in different places – there’s a different reaction to this and that.’’
What can modern people learn from Alexander the Great?
For Piotrovsky, the list starts with the difficult idea – by contemporary standards, at least – that war was once an important way of exchanging culture.
‘‘ Today it is not,’’ he says. ‘‘But we have to think how we can do this [exchange cultures] today and we don’t think about it. Also we can learn the respect for and interest in other cultures – he wasn’t just plundering. And Alexander teaches us that we need some ideal . . . some example with which we can compare ourselves. We need something better than us, a cultural hero. Alexander was this way.’’