Greek Treasures Break the Mold

A long-awaited collection of marble statues at the National Gallery pinpoint the era of more lifelike style

HE has a happy archaic smile curling his lips, but he seems frozen in time and space, this "Statue of a Youth: Kouros," (530 to 520 BC) the moment before the big breakthrough. He stands rigidly in what is supposed to be a walking position, but he is in a fully frontal pose, arms at the sides, his weight evenly distributed on both legs.

This marble kouros is the looming predecessor to the statue which broke all the ancient rules that bound up Greek sculpture, at a time when Athens itself was stretching toward the birth of democracy. That work is the famous "Statue of a Youth: the Kritios Boy," (480-470 BC) which was found on the Athenian Acropolis.

For the first time in the history of art, a sculpture had begun to break free from the rigidity of the marble, leaving the right leg free, the weight resting on the left leg. This stride toward freedom accomplished what Greek sculptors in the 6th century BC had been moving toward: depicting man in a naturalistic way.

"The Greek Miracle: Classical Sculpture from the Dawn of Democracy, The Fifth Century BC," the long-anticipated show (an earlier article in the Monitor's June 11, 1992 issue described how much international cooperation it took to bring these works to the United States, and the unprecedented cultural swap between two great art museums) has arrived at the National Gallery with all its rare Greek treasures, including "Nike (Victory) Unbinding Her Sandal."

The collection, according to National Gallery Director Earl A. Powell III, "exemplifies the glorious achievements of this golden age in the arts as well as in government, architecture, literature, drama, philosophy, politics, and science."

And the momentum begun by the Kritios boy carried over into the sculpting of "Statue of a Running Girl," (490 to 480 BC), in which the beautiful apricot marble of her garment is worked like chiffon in pleats which ripple and flow around her; and continued with the liquid curves of the robe set in motion by a graceful "Nike Unbinding Her Sandal." Also, the powerful vitality of the horses and men in the cavalry from the "Parthenon Frieze" would not have been possible without the precedent set by the maker of the Kritios boy.

This is the first time 22 of these 34 bronze and marble treasures have ever traveled outside Greece. There is a certain patina and resonance about seeing sculpture that's been through 2,500 years and several continents. It all looks amazingly preserved, with the exception of a few missing fingers.

"The Greek Miracle" is organized by the National Gallery of Art in collaboration with New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Ministry of Culture of the Government of Greece.

It leaves the National Gallery Feb. 7, 1993 and moves to its last USdestination, the Metropolitan Museum, March 11 through May 23, l993.

Philippe de Montbello, director of the Metropolitan, says "As examples of the unsurpassed level of creative genius achieved in the 5th century BC, these majestic works represent a crucial stage in the development of all Western art. Works such as these are nothing less than classical icons that have established a pattern of beauty and proportion that can be traced throughout the history of art."

In return for the loans from Greece, the National Gallery and the Metropolitan are lending a total of 70 Old Master paintings from the Met and French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings from the National Gallery for an exhibition opening this month at the Ethniki Pinakothiki (National Gallery) in Athens.

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