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.
“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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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’
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.