Pushkin Museum, Benaki Museum & KIKPE Numismatic Collection. Heads and Tails − Tales and Bodies: Engraving the Human Figure from Antiquity to the Early Modern Period. July 5 − October 30, 2016, Gallery 24, Pushkin Museum, Moscow
More and more coins can clearly constitute the core of thematic exhibitions, despite their small size and some difficulties due mainly to the public’s unfamiliarity with them. The combination of coins with other artefacts in a symbolic dialogue has much to say to a wide audience.
The exhibition Heads and Tails – Tales and Bodies: Engraving the Human Figure from Antiquity to the Early Modern Period falls within this scope. It focuses on the representation of the human figure on coins and other small coin-shaped artefacts through the ages, from Greek Antiquity to the Early Modern Period. In addition to pieces from the collections of the Pushkin Museum, it includes coins from the Benaki Museum in Athens, as well as from the KIKPE Numismatic Collection, which is kept on loan in the Benaki Museum. With images that usually reflect the trends and achievements of large-scale sculpture, the surfaces of coins, gemstones, medals and the like, have proved to be an extraordinary challenge for engravers and some truly remarkable artworks bear witness to the ways in which the difficulties in rendering (Gr. kallos en smikrō for ‘beauty in small-scale’) can be overcome.
One of the main units of the exhibition focuses on anthropomorphism in relation to divinity, a concept that is exemplified quintessentially by the Greek spirit. Numerous representations are assembled, covering both the Greek and the Roman pantheon, as well as the emergence of Christian imagery. Next comes the visualization of mortals, which displays considerable diversity, especially with regard to persons in power: ancient kings, queens, satraps, Roman and Byzantine emperors, Medieval rulers, Early Modern monarchs and tsars, but also heroes, colonists, eminent personages, and so on. Other aspects of anthropomorphism include transfigurations and personifications (river gods, fountain nymphs, cities, institutions, concepts, virtues, etc). A special section is devoted to certain artistic trends that can be traced on coins and similar artefacts (such as Idealism and Realism), spotlighting certain traits, such as details of the human body or engravers’ signatures. Last but not least, examined is the dissemination of the anthropomorphic tradition in a broader geographical context, based on coin imitations of various peoples (e.g. Scythians, Indo-Scythians, Arabs, Turkomans, etc), Medieval and Renaissance revivals, as well as Early Modern influences and echoes.
The exhibition also takes into account the fact that the gallery which hosts it is surrounded by plaster casts of ancient Greek statues, as part of the educational character of the Pushkin Museum. Furthermore, the exhibition encompasses other media in which the human body is reproduced, such as statuettes, painted vases, icons, selected from the Pushkin Museum and the Benaki Museum, and employed as it were as ‘frontispieces’.
Coins and other coin-shaped items and miniature masterpieces are the actual ‘milestones’ of the exhibition. Consequently, the exhibits, through the correlation of cultural and aesthetic affinity, offer visitors a vibrant and innovative view of artistic trends of various eras. Moreover, intriguing links between iconography and an array of fields, such as mythology, religion, history, literature, philosophy, are showcased. The concept of this exhibition was proposed by Professor Vasiliki Penna and was realized with the collaboration of Dr Sergei Kovalenko of the Coins & Medals Department of the Pushkin Museum and Yannis Stoyas of the KIKPE Numismatic Collection.
This event is incorporated in the festivities of the the year 2016 as ‘Year of Greece’ in Russia.
The joint exhibition will be accompanied by a brief catalogue in Russian and by a more comprehensive catalogue in English.
Professor Vasiliki Penna