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Two exhibits at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg worth checking out

“Antioch Reclaimed” showcases ancient mosaics while “From Margins to Mainstays” focuses on photography.
Erin Wilson of St. Petersburg pauses to examine Torso of a Youth, Antioch, Roman, 2nd century A.D. The historic marble statue is on loan from the Princeton University Art Museum and is on display in "Antioch Reclaimed: Ancient Mosaics at the MFA" at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg.
Erin Wilson of St. Petersburg pauses to examine Torso of a Youth, Antioch, Roman, 2nd century A.D. The historic marble statue is on loan from the Princeton University Art Museum and is on display in "Antioch Reclaimed: Ancient Mosaics at the MFA" at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published May 11
Updated May 11

ST. PETERSBURG — The beauty of museums is that they provide a breadth of experiences in which to get lost, an oasis from the pandemic and 90-degree weather.

Two exhibits at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg are such havens.

Related: Photos: New exhibits at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg feature ancient Antioch mosaics and photographic masterworks

“Antioch Reclaimed: Ancient Mosaics at the MFA” showcases mosaic pavements from the ancient Greco-Roman city of Antioch, as well as photographs and artifacts from the 1930s archaeological excavation of the city by a team led by Princeton University.

“From Margins to Mainstays: Highlights From the Photography Collection” focuses on photographers and subjects who were marginalized because of their gender, race, sexual orientation or ethnicity.

‘Antioch Reclaimed’

Kristin Reichman of Fort Lauderdale reads about the mosaic pavement from the House of the Drinking Contest, Roman, 2nd century A.D., at the exhibit "Antioch Reclaimed: Ancient Mosaics at the MFA" at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg.
Kristin Reichman of Fort Lauderdale reads about the mosaic pavement from the House of the Drinking Contest, Roman, 2nd century A.D., at the exhibit "Antioch Reclaimed: Ancient Mosaics at the MFA" at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Centered around five mosaics from Antioch that were acquired by the Museum of Fine Arts in 1964, the exhibition reveals the famous dig that happened from 1932 to 1939 through never-before-exhibited documentary materials from Princeton University. Black-and-white photographs are chronologically arranged to show workers uncovering objects, and the world premiere of a restored film plays in the gallery.

This historic picture shows how cloth and paper facing were glued to the mosaics while they were still in the ground. They were then lifted and their backs reinforced with concrete. The photo is among a group displayed in "Antioch Reclaimed: Ancient Mosaics at the MFA" at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg.
This historic picture shows how cloth and paper facing were glued to the mosaics while they were still in the ground. They were then lifted and their backs reinforced with concrete. The photo is among a group displayed in "Antioch Reclaimed: Ancient Mosaics at the MFA" at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

“I don’t know of another exhibition that talks about archaeology and art history as affiliated disciplines,” said Michael Bennett, senior curator of early Western art for the museum. “Archaeology is the moment of discovery. Art history is the reappraisal of art over time. We’re showing both sides of the spectrum of ways to study the ancient world.”

Jay Lopez Jr. of Los Angeles, left, and his mother, Candi Smith, of Carrollwood, listen as Michael Bennett, senior curator of early Western art for the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg shares details about the "Antioch Reclaimed: Ancient Mosaics at the MFA" exhibition.
Jay Lopez Jr. of Los Angeles, left, and his mother, Candi Smith, of Carrollwood, listen as Michael Bennett, senior curator of early Western art for the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg shares details about the "Antioch Reclaimed: Ancient Mosaics at the MFA" exhibition. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Bennett worked with Antioch expert Andrea De Giorgi, an associate professor in Florida State University’s Classics department. Bennett voiced an enthusiastic audio tour of the exhibition that is helpful.

Antioch was founded around the year 300 B.C. by Seleucus I, a former general of Alexander the Great. Situated on the Orontes River at the mouth of the seaport Seleucia Pieria, it became the end point of the western Silk Road trade routes between Asia and the Mediterranean. First a Greek city, it became the capital of the Roman province of Syria in 64 B.C. and was one of the early centers of Christianity. It was on the border of modern-day Turkey and Syria.

In the 1930s, a team of scholars was granted permission by Syria to perform the excavation. Hoping to find the city center, the team uncovered the suburbs instead, revealing the lavish lifestyle led by residents of the wealthy, multicultural city. Mosaics made up the flooring in domestic villas, which were given colorful names such as “House of the Drinking Contest.” The dig ended with a partage agreement to distribute the mosaics throughout Europe and North America.

This historic picture shows photographer Robert Schirmer, Princeton Class of 1921, and architect Charles K. Agle, Class of 1929, and their assistant as they use a camera bridge designed by Agle to take pictures of the early second century C.E. mosaic floor in the dining room of the Atrium House, April 29, 1932, Antioch.
This historic picture shows photographer Robert Schirmer, Princeton Class of 1921, and architect Charles K. Agle, Class of 1929, and their assistant as they use a camera bridge designed by Agle to take pictures of the early second century C.E. mosaic floor in the dining room of the Atrium House, April 29, 1932, Antioch. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Three of the five mosaics on display, dating from the second to fifth centuries, went through another excavation in 2018, when the Museum of Fine Arts dug them up from the museum’s lawn, where they were mysteriously buried in 1989. A video detailing the process plays in the gallery.

Related: These ancient mosaics were buried on the lawn of the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg.

Now, all five mosaics have been conserved, cleaned and made lighter in weight. It’s the first time since 1964 they have all been displayed together. The inclusion of never-before-exhibited documentary materials from Princeton makes this display a first.

In the gallery with the mosaics, large-scale photographs from the 1930 excavation show the villas as they were unearthed, so you see the mosaics reflected in their original environment.

People explore an exhibit where a picture of the mosaic pavement from the House of the Drinking Contest, Roman, 2nd century A.D., is displayed in the background.
People explore an exhibit where a picture of the mosaic pavement from the House of the Drinking Contest, Roman, 2nd century A.D., is displayed in the background. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

The final phase of the “Antioch Reclaimed” project will come after the exhibition ends: The mosaics will be installed in walls of the museum’s Membership Garden.

‘From Margins to Mainstays’

Patrons of the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg tour the MFA’s new exhibit, "From Margins to Mainstays: Highlights From the Photography Collection."
Patrons of the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg tour the MFA’s new exhibit, "From Margins to Mainstays: Highlights From the Photography Collection." [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

When curator of photography Allison Moore was compiling checklists for upcoming exhibitions, she noticed a common thread that would make an interesting and historical “Highlights of the Collection” show.

“I realized that within those three checklists were many major works that are considered mainstays today, but that were by artists or of subjects who had been marginalized in the canon of art history and had been rediscovered through the work of photo historians like Dr. Naomi Rosenblum and Dr. Deborah Willis,” she said.

The show is divided into sections by theme, including: Artists Picturing Artists, Abstraction and Surrealism, Meaningful Landscapes, the Body as Form, Spirit of Harlem, Domestic Life and the Ongoing Struggle.

Beyond the themes, the show flows visually, and it is so compelling that conversations sparked between guests on a busy recent Wednesday afternoon in the intimate upstairs gallery.

There are many striking standouts, including Richard Avedon’s sublime 1955 portrait of Black opera singer Marian Anderson. Avedon was a fashion photographer who had marriages with women but also closeted relationships with men. Anderson experienced discrimination when the Daughters of the American Revolution prevented her from performing in Washington, D.C. A decade later, she was the first Black musician to perform at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.

Ginger Jenkot of Virginia Beach, Virginia, examines "Marian Anderson, Contralto, New York, June 30, 1955," a photograph by Richard Avedon, in "From Margins to Mainstays: Highlights From the Photography Collection" at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg.
Ginger Jenkot of Virginia Beach, Virginia, examines "Marian Anderson, Contralto, New York, June 30, 1955," a photograph by Richard Avedon, in "From Margins to Mainstays: Highlights From the Photography Collection" at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Lee Miller’s cheeky portrait of artist Isamu Noguchi posing naked behind one of his sculptures from 1946 is a reversal of the male gaze. Miller was a female surrealist and documentary photographer.

Lee Miller, American, 1907-1977. "The Sculptor Isamu Noguchi in his Studio," 1946 (printed later). Gelatin silver print. Gift of William Knight Zewadski.
Lee Miller, American, 1907-1977. "The Sculptor Isamu Noguchi in his Studio," 1946 (printed later). Gelatin silver print. Gift of William Knight Zewadski. [ LEE MILLER | Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts ]

There are several Associated Press photos in the collection, including a powerful 1967 image of Black civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael, who popularized the term “Black power.” Associated Press photos weren’t considered museum-worthy when the photo was taken.

Associated Press, San Francisco Examiner, Stokely Carmichael, 1967. Gelatin silver print. Gift of Ludmila and Bruce Dandrew from the Ludmila Dandrew and Chitranee Drapkin Collection.
Associated Press, San Francisco Examiner, Stokely Carmichael, 1967. Gelatin silver print. Gift of Ludmila and Bruce Dandrew from the Ludmila Dandrew and Chitranee Drapkin Collection. [ Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts ]

An astounding ratio of women photographers is represented in the exhibition. Carlotta M. Copron’s abstract Eggs Multiplied from 1948 brings to mind one of Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Rooms. Julie Blackmon’s New Chair from 2014 explores chaotic visions of domestic life that every parent knows too well.

“New Chair," a photograph by Julie Blackmon, is on display in "From Margins to Mainstays: Highlights From the Photography Collection" at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg.
“New Chair," a photograph by Julie Blackmon, is on display in "From Margins to Mainstays: Highlights From the Photography Collection" at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

There is much more to discover in “From Margins to Mainstays,” an impactful, illuminating exhibition. We are fortunate that these important works live in the museum’s collection.

If you go

“Antioch Reclaimed: Ancient Mosaics at the MFA” is on view through Aug. 22. “From Margins to Mainstays: Highlights From the Photography Collection” runs through Sept. 26. $20, $15 seniors/active military/Florida educators/college students, $10 children ages 7-17, free for children 6 and younger and members. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Wednesday, noon-8 p.m. Thursday-Friday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday, noon-5 p.m. Sunday. The museum is closed on Monday. 255 Beach Drive NE, St. Petersburg. 727-896-2667.