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Friday, October 15, 2004

Arts & Letters

The Way It Was (And the Way It Is)

Games for the Gods: The Greek Athlete and the Olympic Spirit, Museum of Fine Arts, July 21-November 28, Boston.


This is a small show, but choice. The museum’s curator of Greek and Roman art, Christine Kondoleon, has assembled an excellent selection of ancient artifacts, largely from the museum’s own ample collection, to illustrate various aspects of ancient competitive athleticism first institutionalized in the games dedicated to Zeus at Olympia in 776 BCE. Initially conceived to be repeated every four years, the Olympic Games and the other religious/athletic festivals they inspired were an important feature of the Greek and Roman world for centuries, until they were abolished by Christian emperors determined to eliminate events associated with the worship of rival deities. In the late nineteenth century, the games were revived in Greece, newly freed from its centuries-long subjection to the Ottoman empire, as a way to advertise the country’s centrality to the so-called Western tradition, and hence its right to be considered a European nation. The first modern Olympic contest was held in Athens in 1896.

In 2004, with the Olympics returned to Greece, it made sense that a museum with one of the greatest holdings of ancient art in the world—second only to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York—should celebrate the event with a display of relevant pieces from its collection. The museum has been fortunate in its Boston collectors, who have donated so many fine pieces since the institution’s founding in 1870. The original collectors’ interest in Greek antiquities, it seems fair to say, was essentially esthetic, if not partly snobbish, as was that of the museum’s directors, not to mention the folks who funded and ran major archeological digs in Greece and Italy. It is notorious that, in their pursuit of what they considered to be treasures, they were willing to dig through, ignore, or discard various other material. Indeed, it wasn’t until 30 years ago, more or less, that classical archeologists adopted the techniques and scientific attitudes of their so-called New World colleagues, who were just as interested in ancient garbage and feces as in art objects.

The present exhibition is outstanding, not because it abandons esthetics as its basis—some of the pieces on display are ravishing—but because it depends upon a sociological, physical, and psychological investigation and explanation of ancient Greek competitive athletics. It is, therefore, highly informative, meant to intrigue viewers of both sexes and all ages. For children, as a matter of fact, the museum has prepared an interactive brochure that cannot fail to get them interested in the objects on display. Ancient Greek art is, on the one hand, a triumph of realism, but, on the other, so idealized a realism as to lose almost completely the sense of individuality or circumstance. Objects on view in museums lose their context, sometimes even their integrity, when they are damaged; the sanctity imposed on museums by society, the lighting of displays, the separation of pieces, their positioning on walls, are all conducive to fetishizing the material. What this show does is offer the viewer the information needed to “read” the representations on view so as to defeat the abstraction imposed on them.

Beginning with the first chapter of the excellent catalogue that accompanies this show, “Some Olympians on the Games They Play,” in which contemporary athletes who have competed in Olympic events are interviewed, all sorts of complications and nuances are brought into play. These young men and women talk about the exhilaration, tension, relentless training, physical pain, sweat, grind, depression, sense of loss, and failure—not to mention the politics of the International Olympic Committee. In the exhibition rooms, quotations from antiquity on athletes and their training are displayed. On the two side walls of the first exhibition room are contemporary photographs of athletes running, throwing the discus, boxing, wrestling, etc., as well as videos of modern athletic contests. The objects on display are arranged so that the viewer can proceed by looking at the photographs on the wall and then studying the ancient objects across from them. While this arrangement precludes instantly walking around any object, and thus downplays the pieces as works of art, it is helpful for understanding what an ancient viewer might have been internally visualizing while looking at the ancient painted or sculpted representation. Interestingly enough, while the medium of photography conveys the immediacy—the sweat and strain—of athletic endeavor, the rectangular shape and “framing” also prompt the viewer to read the photo esthetically, which brings it all back to the vases and sculptures in the vitrines.

In the same way, the background of competitive sports is imported into the displays. This seems an important corrective to the traditional estheticizing of ancient Greek vases and sculpture, and, moreover, of the notions of heroism, nobility, and aristocracy—that is, being the best—that are given such eloquent expression in Pindar’s victory odes. Considered the superlative poet in antiquity, Pindar (born possibly 519 BCE) has held an extraordinary grip on successive generations of readers and poets, although the obscurity of his difficult verse is notorious. He was often hired, by wealthy horse-owners or by Sicilian tyrants who funded entrants into the games, to create odes celebrating their victories. It would be as though Louise Glück were hired to celebrate Microsoft’s victory of a company-funded soccer team that had won at the Olympics. That aside, Pindar’s strange and vatic utterances have enshrined maleness, effort, victory, money, and glory as a wreath of sorts with which to crown the heroics of human achievement. The absolute virtues of success, masculinity, and superiority in racial and class purity were reaffirmed whenever and wherever Pindar’s lyrics were read; in the Twenties and Thirties of the twentieth century, they were a facet of the “third humanism” (der dritte Humanismus), a movement of sorts that underlay the German classicist Werner Jaeger’s Paideia, a monumental three-volume overview of Plato and fifth-century BCE Athenian culture. It seems reasonable to assume that Boston’s nineteenth- and twentieth-century, upper-middle-class, esthete collectors could read themselves into the imagery of these pieces through the agency of the Pindaric odes, which they would all have studied at school.

The exhibition begins with the myth of Hippodameia and Pelops and the chariot race at Olympia, the legendary origin of the games, moves on to Olympia as a venue, then takes the viewer through representations of sporting events from the earliest Olympics, and on to the role of female athletes—which includes an extraordinary fifth-century kylix, or drinking cup, the inside of which shows a naked male and a seated female in shorts, in what must certainly be an ancient version of the locker room (in Sparta, certainly, the only place where coed athletics were ever mentioned). In addition, in showing the spread of the games as an idea, the exhibition presents two walls of brilliantly colored reproductions from an Etruscan tomb depicting the games among those people. Interspersed among the images of athletes and athletics are pieces of equipment, such as the scraper that athletes used to remove the olive oil from their bodies after exercise, a far more caring treatment of human skin than the soap-and-hot-water showers employed nowadays. Perhaps more than anything else, the exhibition of these sports accoutrements makes the ancient games and their participants real and understandable.

What will always remain a mystery, as this exhibition demonstrates, is the complete nudity of male athletes during Greek antiquity (the Romans were highly suspicious of the custom). If we are to believe Herodotus, nudity was a feature the Greeks consciously introduced into their athletics, not something that they inherited from a remoter antiquity. Their exercise area, our word gymnasium, was their gymnasion, a place to be in the nude (gymnos), a place forever closed to women. Contemporary athletes claim it is a disadvantage to leave male genitals without any support or, for that matter, protection in rough sports like wrestling, so the mystery remains. The well-known ancient Greek disposition to value young male physical beauty does not account for this nudity, since a naked penis does not define that beauty in the way, for instance, that breasts are indispensable to defining the beautiful female body. Athletic nudity seems to have had more to do with foregrounding male generative power, of which it is the foremost expression.

Still, the gaze of men in the gymnasium will always be admiring, sometimes erotic (consider the vase painting in this exhibition of an older, handsome man moving in on a beautiful naked boy who gazes at him adoringly, and seems not to flinch as the older man’s hand moves toward the boy’s crotch). Numerous paintings in this show document idealized teenage male beauty, perhaps none more beautiful than an early fifth-century drinking cup, in the center of which a youthful boxer stands holding the leather thong with which he will bind his hands. His lithe body is given volume, bone, and muscle with the most economical lines drawn onto the red clay; his head is remarkable for the intelligent and sensitive look of the face gazing meditatively down on the leather thong. The body stands alone in an empty black field relieved only by a pickaxe, which crosses in an oblique perpendicular line, and weights hanging in space to one side, items from the jumping contest useful here only as esthetic punctuation for the simplicity of the boy presented in his moment. “Athenodotos is handsome” and “handsome” are inscribed on the interior (the latter twice), and “the boy is handsome” once on the exterior. These images of the young male athlete at rest, foregrounding the boy and not the athletic endeavor, are remarkable as testimony to a very different culture of athleticism. Equally extraordinary, one might say, is E. P. Warren, the man who had the sense to acquire the two vases just mentioned, and from whose collection so many of these superb pieces came to the museum at the beginning of the twentieth century.

While the beautiful boy is the stereotype one carries away from this show, no one should overlook the painted representations of boxers with their big, muscled bellies, nor the boxer with a cauliflower ear, nor the bronze female runners whose elongated, hipless, almost breastless bodies serving as mirror handles show that some serious training had been going on for these girls. And, as an antidote to a relentless heroizing of ancient athletics, one needs to remember that most contests allowed all kinds of what we now call foul play. A scene on an early fifth-century BCE Panathenaic prize vase in this show, inscribed “from the games at Athens,” depicts two standing wrestlers, one in the process of tripping the other. The very legend of Hippodameia and Pelops enshrines a gross racing violation: her father’s chariot, against which Pelops was racing, was tampered with, so it would crash.

The athletic games held as part of the funeral for Patroclus described in The Iliad were a standard component of the celebration of a death, or commemoration of the death of a hero sacred to a land. The win-lose dynamics perfectly enacted the natural struggle or the fine line between life and death, which is the human lot. The eroticized teenage male athlete is an ideal metaphor for the intersection of death and competition. As Wallace Stevens observes in his poem, “Sunday Morning,” “death is the mother of beauty,” a line that concludes an observation on a peach still on a tree, which owes its beauty to our knowledge that, having reached absolute maturity, its perfection, that peach now must decay and, inevitably, fall from the branch. To the ancient Greek, the same was true of, say, a 15-to-17-year-old male who had achieved biological perfection, the perfect time for mating, and now must decline. Thus, his exceeding beauty had the hint of death in it. Conversely, a grave stele in the show, depicting in incredibly carved, shallow relief a life-sized young male—handsome, muscular, and elegant—is the joyful triumph of life over death, because this young athlete, dying in his prime, will never know the humiliation of stumbling into old age.

In the win-lose affair, mimicking battle’s imperative of living or dying, of athletic competition, whether at the gymnasium or in festival games, the radiant beauty of the teenage boy was a defense against the truth of death, while his body’s very perfection hinted at the mournful truth of mortality. Adult ancient Greek males did not deny themselves the pleasure of responding to boys on the playing fields. In whatever way they engaged with these beautiful boys, whether physically, flirtatiously, or, simply, athletically, they renewed their own youth—an interesting variation, one might say, on the American institution of Little League. Beautiful boys are a subject so highly charged nowadays that it takes a woman to take it on in our culture, as Germaine Greer has done in her vastly entertaining study, The Beautiful Boy.

In a strange way, visiting this exhibition is the perfect antidote to the bloated affair that was recently broadcast on our televisions live from Greece. While the modern Olympic games are entirely secular, the elaborate ceremony, glamour, and pretentiousness that have developed around them derive from the extraordinary 1936 Berlin Olympics, in which Nazi esthetics and pseudo-religion combined with the Roman imperial tendencies of Art Deco to create something huge and transcendent; the ravishing documentary of that event made by Leni Riefenstahl remains a standard against which contemporary televised presentations of the games will always lose. Since their reappearance in 1896, the Olympics have become something approaching a global festival, occurring every four years in whatever country lobbies the hardest, has the most obvious political appeal at the moment, and, most of all, promises to build a suitably lavish infrastructure for what has become an exceedingly grand and almost unwieldy enterprise. These modern Olympics, however, can in no way compete with the images depicted on the masterpieces in this small show currently at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.

Charles Rowan Beye is distinguished professor emeritus of classics at the City University of New York, a contributing editor to greekworks.com, and author, most recently, of Odysseus: A Life.
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