Onassis Cultural Center

Edification value  
Entertainment value  
Should you go?  
Time spent 57 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned A grave stela for a “lovable pig, victim of a traffic accident” from Edessa in Macedonia from the 2nd or 3rd century AD.  That was some pig.  He was radiant.  And humble.
Olympic Tower

The Onassis Center is a medium-sized subterranean gallery space accessed via the public atrium in the lobby of the Olympic Center. It’s the Greek answer to the various cultural forums and societies that dot the city, and thanks to its benefactors, it has the resources to put on really interesting shows of high-end art from the Hellenic world.

The current show has pieces from Greece, along with things borrowed from other notable museums around the world (including thet Met), so the Center clearly has some standing among the bigger guys.  Always a good sign in terms of whether it’d be worth randomly dropping by.

Without a doubt the Onassis Center was good for my vocabulary (which is very good to begin with).  I picked up six new-to-me words, at least five of which I am sure I will find opportunities to use in the near future.

  • apotropaic: having the power to avert evil influences or bad luck
  • nympholepsy: the condition of believing one has cavorted with nymphs
  • phimosis: a medical condition involving an overly tight foreskin
  • prothesis:  in this case lying in repose/viewing a body, part of ancient Greek funeral rites

And the last two terms distinguish between kinds of desire.

  • pothos: longing for something lost or distant
  • himeros: desire for something new or unexpected

I bet we discussed those at some point in my liberal arts, great-books based college education, but if so I’d forgotten about them.  It’s a great distinction.  Whereas I’d say equally I’m “in the mood” for my college-era pizza place or to try a well-regarded Laotian restaurant in Jamaica, in reality I’m feeling pothos for one and himeros for the other. I think.

The Onassis Center is beautifully designed, filtering a lot of natural light down into the basement level space, and features a fancy glass staircase and a small water feature, architectural details for which I have a weakness.

The show didn’t allow photography, so I don’t have any of the inside of the gallery itself.  But the current exhibit was interesting, on how the ancient Greeks processed and depicted emotions. It features sculpture and painted vases and masks, but also tablets inscribed with curses and requests for the gods, and other humbler, day-to-day items.  It explores emotions not in the obvious “happiness, sadness, anger” way but rather through the lens of location:  emotions in the home/private, emotions in public, emotions in the graveyard and on the battlefield. 

The one exception was around wrath, where there was a corner of the exhibit devoted specifically to depictions of Medea, who of course pretty much cornered the market on the topic.  The one non-classical work on display was a large-scale projection of a still photo of Maria Callas as Medea in a La Scala production from 1961.  Not at all classically Greek, but very very wrathful.

The Onassis Center has been under my radar right up until I started this project.  I’m glad it’s not anymore.  You still need to visit to the Met if you want an encyclopedic grand tour of Greek art, but I trust them to do amazing shows scaled right for their impressive space.  I highly recommend it. 

Finally, a planning note, the Olympic Tower is right across 52nd Street from the Austrian Cultural Forum, so those two spots form an easy (and free, and uncrowded) art-filled couple of hours in midtown.

For Reference:

Address Olympic Tower, 645 5th Avenue, Manhattan
Website onassisusa.org
Cost Free
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