Picks and Pans Review: The Search for Alexander
When he died of fever in Babylon in 323 B.C., Alexander the Great was 32 years old and the master of Greece, Pharaoh of Egypt and King of the Persian Empire. If there had been a governor of North Dakota then, he would have been that too, because he achieved what nobody before or since has, in spite of occasional tragic attempts: He conquered the known world. A general who never lost a battle, he was also a student of Aristotle, a reader of Homer's Iliad, a lover of orgies and possibly an alcoholic. In short, he was born to be a miniseries on Masterpiece Theatre, except that so much about his life has been lost—including his body, which was exhibited in Egypt in a crystal coffin for seven centuries, all his personal possessions and even the corpse of his beloved horse, Bucephalus. Much of what we "know" about Alexander is really only speculation. This handsome traveling exhibit, which opened at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. and will remain until April 5, is an attempt to place the elusive legend of Alexander in at least an artistic context. The inspiration of playwright Zachary Morfogen, an American of Greek heritage, the show is sponsored by the National Bank of Greece, Mobil Oil and Time Inc. (Morfogen is an executive with Books and Arts Associates, a division of Time Inc.) Its centerpiece is a collection of artifacts from a royal burial ground discovered at Vergina, Greece in 1977. A tomb, possibly belonging to Alexander's father, Philip of Macedon, was unearthed intact and objects from it, including a diadem and leg armor, are displayed. They provide the most tangible sense of Alexander. However, a visitor needs a strong imagination to find him in the examples of sophisticated Macedonian metalwork and other items. There is a seven-minute slide introduction to the show, including a Dell comic book and a still of Richard Burton from the 1956 film Alexander the Great. There are representations of Alexander of uncertain authenticity, since some of them were sculpted as late as the fourth century A.D. Permeating the exhibit is a sense of mystery as the quest for the almost mythic conqueror goes on. After leaving Washington, the show opens at the Art Institute of Chicago on May 16. It will travel later to Boston, San Francisco, New Orleans and New York. A companion book of the same title has been published (Little, Brown, $24.95), and a four-part television documentary on Alexander is in production.
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