Art Institute Pays Homage to Dionysos

Exhibit celebrates Dionysos, Greek god of wine and theatre,  and his influence on ancient Greek art.

Dionysos Unmasked

Dionysos Unmasked: Ancient Sculpture and Early Prints, an exhibit currently running at the Art Institute in Chicago, tells the story of Dionysos, not only as god of wine and grapes, but also explores his role as the god of theater. The collaboration between the departments of Ancient and Byzantine Art, and Prints and Drawings uses the figure of Dionysos to explore early printmakers’ responses to Classical antiquity. It also sparks renewed interest in Greek art, mythology, and ancient Greek culture.


Recently, I had the opportunity to discuss Dionysos Unmasked with Karen Manchester, Chair and Curator of Ancient Art, Ancient & Byzantine Art at the Art Institute, and discover how the exhibit was conceived, what it does for the status of Greek art in the US, why the exhibit is important to Chicago, and more.


About Art Institute

Last year, Trip Advisor named the Art Institute the top museum in the world. Located on prestigious Michigan Avenue, the museum opened its doors in 1879, and boasts more than 300,000 works in its permanent collection. The Art Institute is also home to one of the finest research libraries for art and architecture in the country, and each year, hosts many special exhibitions, gallery talks, lectures, performances, and more. The 2011 gift from the Jaharis Family Foundation that led to the opening of The Mary and Michael Jaharis Galleries of Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Art, plus works such as El Greco’s stirring “The Assumption of the Virgin” (located in Gallery 211), and more, Chicago is able to experience Greek art and its contribution to the art world in new and exciting ways.

The exhibit, Dionysos Unmasked: Ancient Sculpture and Early Prints (in Galleries 150 and 154), affords another opportunity for visitors to experience Greek art, learn more about its influence, and get to know Dionysos on another level.


Statue of Young Dionysos (detail), 100 B.C.–A.D. 100. Anonymous loan. Photograph by Richard Valencia.COURTESY Art Institute of Chicago
Statue of Young Dionysos (detail), 100 B.C.–A.D. 100. Anonymous loan. Photograph by Richard Valencia. COURTESY Art Institute of Chicago


The seeds of inspiration came from the 2012 loan of an ancient Roman statuary group depicting three satyrs struggling against a serpent. This was identified more than 30 years ago as the likely inspiration for the face of a figure in the work of great Renaissance artist Antonio Pollauiolo in the 15th century. Karen said they thought to bring the two together, but at the time, could only do so in a catalogue. Later, when the Art Institute received the Statue of a Young Dionysus on long-term loan, and also a Statue of a Young Satyr Playing with a Mask of Silenos, everything changed.


“This prompted a discussion between the curatorial staff (myself and Terah Walkup) in Ancient and Byzantine Art; and Suzanne Karr Schmidt, Assistant Curator, Department of Prints and Drawings, about an exhibition that focused on the response of early modern (Renaissance and thereafter) artists to the classical antiquities that were being discovered and collected from the Renaissance onward.” 


The group realized that the Prints and Drawings Collection included a number of works of art that could round out an exhibit. They determined that if they borrowed other ancient works from private collections, they could pay homage to Dionysos, not only as the god of wine (along with members of his entourage), but also in his role as god of theater.


Dionysos has appeal to contemporary audiences

Karen discussed why Dionysos is such a fascinating subject matter, and worthy of this concentrated focus.


“He gave us viticulture and the performing arts. Like many ancient Greek gods, Dionysos has universal appeal, but perhaps more so to contemporary audiences, who in the last thirty or so years have developed a greater appreciation for wine and who also have a love of the theater, whose western tradition traces back to the golden age of Greece, specifically Athens in the 5th century B.C. He has taught us what it means to be human, to experience the full range of human impulses, and how to grapple with some of the larger issues of living in settled societies.”


Greek art in the US

The exhibit contains several pieces made in ancient Greece, which Karen said allows visitors to experience first-hand original two-  and three-dimensional works made by Greek artists living in communities in Greece, as well as others who moved abroad, even in antiquity, but maintained their “quintessential Greekness.”


“It also demonstrates the fascination Greek art exerted over arts of later centuries, including the ancient Roman sculptors who carved many of the statues in the exhibition. It also allows us to see Greek art’s enduring influence today, which, through the prints and drawings in the exhibition that were created by many exceptional draftsmen from the Renaissance period to the nineteenth century, and through them, the fascination of the collectors who were driven to acquire them. Some of the works on paper have been purchased by the museum, but many of them were also gifts to a world-class institution here in the heart of a great city.”


Left: Caryatid Figure of the Muse Melpomene, c. 2nd century A.D. Anonymous loan. Right: Johann Theodor de Bry. Melpomene, Muse of Tragedy, plate 8 from Parnassus Biceps, 1601. The Art Institute of Chicago. The Wallace L. DeWolf and Joseph Brooks Fair Collections. COURTESY Art Institute of Chicago
Left: Caryatid Figure of the Muse Melpomene, c. 2nd century A.D. Anonymous loan.
Right: Johann Theodor de Bry. Melpomene, Muse of Tragedy, plate 8 from Parnassus Biceps, 1601. The Art Institute of Chicago. The Wallace L. DeWolf and Joseph Brooks Fair Collections. COURTESY Art Institute of Chicago

Exhibit is important to the city

This exhibit is important to Chicago — and not just for people of Greek descent, but to the city’s vibrant art scene. It establishes a connection between classical art and culture and modern times, illuminating its source as inspiration not only to generations of artists of varying genres, but also to the viewer. It also demonstrates its continued relevance today.


“As a global city inhabited by people from over two hundred other countries (including the world’s fourth largest Greek-speaking population!), Chicago is home to this world-class museum with encyclopedic collections ripe for exploration by our many visitors seeking to understand the world in which they live. Although collecting interests have changed over time, the museum’s founders believed it was their responsibility to educate the citizens of their burgeoning city by bringing classical artworks to Chicago. While the Art Institute’s current focus is on modern and contemporary art, the great chronological span of the collections, and the great depth of the Prints and Drawings collection in particular, allows the museum to present an exhibition that demonstrates that classical culture is still thriving today. Dionysos Unmasked is also a wonderful complement to the museum’s other shows, especially the recent exhibition about Charles Ray.”


Jaharis Galleries illuminate influence of ancient Greek culture on art

The addition of the Jaharis Galleries and exhibits like Dionysos Unmasked help the Art Institute to not only showcase amazing artwork, but also to educate Chicagoans and tourists about the influence of ancient Greek culture on art.


The Mary and Michael Jaharis Galleries of Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Art, and the space exhibition galleries contained within them allows for a series of rotating exhibitions that draw attention to the influence of ancient Greek cultures, Byzantine as well as classical, on the visual, performing, and other arts of our time. The galleries are located at a critical juncture in the museum, connecting with four others that house artwork by other cultures that were influenced by classical and Byzantine art. For example, to the west are the Alsdorf galleries, where Greek influence can be seen in the sculptures of the Gandharan culture of Asia; to the north is the Modern Wing, which houses works of artists such as Brancusi and Picasso, who were inspired by Greek Cycladic art; to the east is the great Stock Exchange Room, the decoration of which is deeply resonant of Byzantine art; and to the south is the neo-classical court, which houses American art fashioned in the classical style that influenced this nation’s forefathers, who adopted it as the visual idiom for our great country. They are truly priceless.”


Upcoming event

There will be an Express Talk lecture, this December 2, on the Legends of Dionysos.


Don’t miss this exciting exhibition. Become a member and get all the latest news and event information from the Art Institute.


Dionysos Unmasked: Ancient Sculpture and Early Prints runs through February 15, 2015. The Art Institute is located at 111 S. Michigan Avenue in Chicago. Exhibit hours and visitor information.


Maria A. Karamitsos

Maria A. Karamitsos

Founder & Editor at WindyCity Greek
For 10 years, Maria served as the Associate Editor and Senior Writer for The Greek Star newspaper. Her work has been published in GreekCircle magazine, The National Herald, GreekReporter, Harlots Sauce Radio, Women.Who.Write, Neo magazine, KPHTH magazine, and more. Maria has contributed to three books: Greektown Chicago: Its History, Its Recipes; The Chicago Area Ethnic Handbook; and the inaugural Voices of Hellenism Literary Journal.
Maria A. Karamitsos

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