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Antiquity Revived

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Nothing can prepare a person for the overwhelming euphoria of fine art. Antiquity Revived: Neoclassical Art in the Eighteenth Century, currently at the MFAH until the end of May, combines paintings, sculpture and objects d’art like furniture into a satisfying and oft time awesome exhibit.

The 1700s saw patronized art return to classical Greek, Roman and even Egyptian formulas. In Rome the Pope orders that no women will model nude. Some motifs of the nearly 150 paintings on display had appeared previously in plays and operas. MFAH curator Edgar Peters Bowron likens it to a modern opera being made after a successful book and movie (Dead Man Walking).

There are paintings inspired by Euripides and another depicting Thor battling a Midgard serpent. There are two different paintings showing the same tribulation of Philoctetes. There’s a Klismos chair and a white marble bust of the Roman leader Caracella whose eyes stare so forcibly at the viewer that it’s downright creepy. Bowron calls Caracella, without a trace of irony, the Roman Gaddafi.

A wall-sized painting titled Interior of an Imaginary Picture Gallery with Views of Ancient Rome (1757) by Giovanni Paolo Panini stops you in your footsteps. It takes several minutes just to examine each and every image Panini has to offer, and even longer if you know what you’re looking for. But nothing compares to seeing Henry Fuseli’s dark and foreboding The Nightmare (1781) up close and personal. A lady clad in sleeping attire lays distraught on her bed with a demon on her breast and a horse head with an ugly snout peering out of the darkness. This exhibition is worth a second look.

— Michael Bergeron