Perhaps the most formative and enduring hero in the history of art was Alexander III of Macedon. He astonished and changed the world by vastly extending the Greek cosmos: into Egypt, across Persia and up to India, leaving a trail of vanquished larger armies, war memorials (a genre he may have invented) and cities named after himself. He died in 323 BCE, aged 32. His empire soon fell apart, but the iconography devoted to him has continued to expand.
Alexander's enormous influence on art and artifacts, from contemporary coins bearing his lion-like locks to newspaper ads for for shaving products, are extensively illustrated in this blockbuster show at the Australian Museum from Russia's State Hermitage. The museum, founded in 1764 by Empress of Russia Catherine the Great, herself a fan of the man, is sending over 400 objects and 29 curators to Sydney.
The artistic lineage of one eye-catching piece demonstrates the enduring fascination with Alexander for well over 2,000 years: a plaque titled 'The Battle of Alexander and Darius'. Alexander's noble adversary, the Persian king Darius, is shown bearded, like any respectable leader until Alexander established his trademark clean-shaven look. The original painting from 317 BCE, now lost, was commissioned by Cassander, a later Macedonian king also taught by Aristotle. Famous in its day, it was one of the first mass battle scenes ever painted. A mosaic copy was made in Pompeii in the 2nd century BCE; the discovery of this major artefact in 1831 spawned many miniature knock-offs, including the one in this show.
"This piece is a ‘tourist’ replica created for the same reason as small Eiffel Towers are today," says Fran Dorey, Exhibition Project Coordinator at the Australian Museum. It might be a trinket, but it's one we can read into. "Despite damage, the two kings are recognisable, and the scene is most likely of the Battle of Issus in 333 BCE. The detail is amazing, and allows us to reconstruct such things as what they wore and what weapons were used: notice the lack of stirrups for riders. As the mosaic was recreated for the house of a wealthy Roman, it also shows how popular Alexander was in those times."
And now. Today several million homes have DVDs such as Oliver Stone's 2004 Alexander which "tell his story with the admiration and reverence of the authors of antiquity," writes the Director of the Hermitage in his introduction to the extensive catalogue that many Sydneysiders will be taking home after their battle against the crowds at this huge exhibition. Director Piotrovsky concludes: "Today, as the world once brought together by Alexander rapidly falls apart, it is good to recall that globalisation is not always something to regret. This exhibition serves to illustrate that fact."