Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.6.2

Renee Dreyfus and Ellen Schraudolph, Pergamon: The Telephos Frieze from the Great Altar, vol. 1. San Francisco: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 1996. Pp. 120. ISBN 0-88401-089-9.

Reviewed by Mark D. Fullerton, Department of History of Art, The Ohio State University,

This show catalogue is the first of two promised volumes published in conjunction with the exhibit of Pergamene antiquities mounted during 1996 in New York (Metropolitan Museum of Art) and San Francisco (California Palace of the Legion of Honor). As the title indicates, the largest part of the show consisted of twelve fragmentary panels from the Telephos Frieze, but these were supplemented by other sculptures (unattributed heads from the Telephos Frieze, two statues from the Great Altar, two portrait heads, fragments from the Gigantomachy Frieze, the well-known Prometheus group from the Athena Terrace), architectural fragments from both the Great Altar building and the sacrificial altar proper, and a selection of coins constituting a numismatic history of the city. The second volume, which as of this writing has not yet appeared, is to consist of essays which "explore in detail recent scholarship relating to the Telephos Frieze and the site of Pergamon" (p.10). The volume under review is designed to accompany and orient visitors to the exhibit itself, which I was fortunate enough to see in New York during March of 1996. It begins with a series of largely documentary essays, including an Introduction (largely a thumbnail history of Pergamon and its culture, by Dreyfus), "Excavation and Assembly of the Frieze" (by Ursula Kaestner), and "History of the Display of the Telephos Frieze in the Twentieth Century" (by Wolf-Dieter Heilmeyer). A more interpretive treatment of the frieze is offered in Andrew Stewart's "A Hero's Quest: Narrative and the Telephos Frieze." Schraudolph's Catalogue follows; it offers a detailed description of each beautifully illustrated piece, an attempt to locate each altar fragment, and a brief discussion of each piece's style and possible meaning.

Taken together, these studies serve as an excellent introduction to Pergamon, the Altar, and the Telephos Frieze. The historical studies are of interest to specialist and lay museum-goer alike, since the history of the monument and how it came to modern and western consciousness is very much a part of how we view it today. In recent years, concern with the history of archaeology and museology has been catching up with our tradition of exclusive involvement with the chunks of marble themselves. This is a healthy development, since it offers the opportunity to reflect on how this involvement has itself been conditioned by external forces. What emerges most strikingly in relationship to the Telephos Frieze in particular is the fact that it has been so little seen in the century-plus that it has been above ground. As Heilmeyer's essay makes clear (and as I myself experienced on a study session at the Pergamon Museum in 1981), few were allowed to enter the room where the Telephos Frieze was displayed, and for many scholars of Hellenistic sculpture, it is a monument known largely through photographs.

Autopsy of the Telephos Frieze reinforces strongly the often-cited phenomenon of stylistic difference between it and the Gigantomachy Frieze. Put most simply, both display a form of "baroque" drama and vitality, but the stylistic forms of the former draw primarily from late Classical sources and that of the latter from models of the High Classical period. This is evident in poses, faces, composition, garment types, drapery patterns and textures of fabric and flesh. Most analyses of this stylistic distinction attribute the difference to date; architectural logic and material evidence indicate that the Telephos Frieze is the later of the two, and thus it has been seen as exemplifying a perceived transition from "High Hellenism to Late Hellenism" (cf. p.37). Whatever the facts of dating, the distinction between the two monuments would seem more likely to result from differences in modes of expression -- sculptural for the Gigantomachy and pictorial for the scenes from the life of Telephos. As is being more widely recognized, style follows no chronological scheme in Hellenistic sculpture; theme and subject suggest style, and it is appropriate to think of these two friezes as contemporaneous expressions of different classes of topic which employ distinct visual languages.

In light of this, Stewart's essay on narrative is all the more significant. He explains how the style of the Telephos Frieze is closely connected to both its ostensible subject and its underlying messages. The pictorialism, and especially the extensive use of landscape, contextualize the story and make it more "real." Such suggested veracity was essential in light of the implied political message and contrasts sharply with the Olympian timelessness of the Gigantomachy. As the landscape underscores, Telephos was a hero whose character, in Hellenistic fashion, "expands to fill a predetermined space" -- as did Attalid Pergamon itself -- and in this way differs from the more assertive heroes of early Greek times. Stewart's somewhat optimistic attempts to find antecedents for the continuous narrative of the Telephos Frieze yield more negative than positive results. Metopes and vases with deeds of Herakles and Theseus lack the tightly constructed temporal causality of the frieze; the images on the "Homeric bowls" function more like visual glosses to the included textual citations than true pictorial narrative. This is not to say that there were not antecedents, but, as Stewart also implies, these would have been found in the realm of free painting. Present evidence suggests that the Telephos frieze was a highly innovative work of sculpture.

The entire co-operative enterprise surrounding this show represents a very positive development; collections in formerly Communist states which have been little seen and less than ideally cared for may now be restored and brought to a much broader audience. A more focused attention will inevitably lead to a revival of scholarly interest and thus to new interpretations and syntheses. I look forward to seeing the second volume in this series and to yet more ventures of this kind.