These beauties still turn heads after 2,500 years. First wave in Greek cultural offensive

Faint traces of rose paint still cling to the stylized, crimped marble hair of an ancient Greek kore, or female statue, nearly 2,500 years after it was carved in marble for the Acropolis. The statue is one of three korai that transfix the visitor to an extraordinary new exhibition at the National Gallery of Art. Titled ``The Human Figure in Early Greek Art,'' it includes 67 examples of Greek sculpture from the 10th to 5th centuries BC, including some never before seen in the United States, some on view for the first time outside Greece.

The three korai, with their archaic smiles, boldly beautiful faces, and graceful drapery, stand dramatically spotlighted from several angles so that they cast multiple shadows on the gray wall behind them. The shadows may be symbolic of the exhibit itself: As National Gallery director Carter Brown points out in the catalog accompanying the show, the Greeks' work between the 10th and 5th centuries BC ``charted the course for the subsequent development of Western art.

``While we tend to take this accomplishment for granted, it is the bedrock on which European representational art was based for 2,000 years.''

In addition to priceless marble sculptures of korai and kouroi (male heroic figures) and historic figures, the exhibit also includes painted pottery, terracotta figures and bronzes spanning these five critical centuries.

The oldest work of art is terracotta-colored clay centaur, half man, half horse, intricately decorated with black patterns.

The exhibit will be the subject of a documentary narrated by Colleen Dewhurst at a later date over the Public Broadcasting System.

Greece's minister of culture, Melina Mercouri, who says her country is involved in ``cultural rearmament,'' introduced the exhibit.

Ms. Mercouri, celebrated as an actress (``Never on Sunday,'' ``Topkapi''), dramatically held up the cover of the catalog and growled, ``I timidly suggest that if this marble does not move you, you have hearts of other stone.''

The blond actress, looking rather regal in a purple suit, said her country was lobbing a few glittering missiles at the United States:

``The Greeks are on a cultural offensive. We are involved in a three-pronged invasion into American consciousness of our arts.''

The three prongs she referred to are:

This exhibit on the human figure from the classical period.

A second touring exhibit from the Byzantine period, ``Holy Image, Holy Space, Icons and Frescoes from Greece,'' which opens in Baltimore Aug. 20.

A third show, ``Voices of Hellenism,'' spanning the archaic period through the 19th century with 110 works of art.

That Smithsonian-backed exhibit will tour a dozen US cities after opening in Washington near the end of this year.

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