ART : Greeks Bearing Gifts : The welcome sensual pleasures of 'The Greek Miracle' at New York's Metropolitan : Museum are undercut by a misguided attempt to link democracy and artistic naturalism

Christopher Knight is a Times art critic

"The Greek Miracle: Classical Sculpture From the Dawn of Democracy, the Fifth Century BC" is an exhibition of guilty pleasures.

The sensual satisfaction comes from several of the 45 objects assembled in the Robert Lehman Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, some of which are among the most dazzling in the history of Western culture. By contrast, the queasy guilt arrives in knowing in the back of your mind that this pseudo-exhibition should probably never have been done.

"The Greek Miracle," first presented last fall at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, adds not a shred of knowledge to our existing understanding of the course of artistic practice 2,500 years ago. Instead, it uses sculpture merely to rehearse a familiar story.

The sentimental tale begins with the emergence of individual political autonomy, out from under the collective tyranny practiced in Egypt, Mesopotamia and Persia, and it is then suffused with the blare of trumpets in the wonderment-touting title. "The Greek Miracle" means to link democracy and artistic naturalism, in a quiet but nonetheless pointed way, thus endowing a political doctrine with the force of nature. It's like a kiddie fable writ big.

It's easy to see how one could get carried away with works of the astounding quality found in those assembled here. They can take your breath away.

There's the tender scene of "Herakles Receiving the Golden Apples of the Hesperides," a massive high relief from the Temple of Zeus at Olympia, in which the hero carries the heavens on his shoulders, palpably cushioned by a pillow and effortlessly steadied by the helpful hand of a serenely majestic Athena.

Later, the fragment of thundering cavalry riders from the Parthenon frieze achieves an almost cinematic movement of horses' legs, through an extraordinarily complex layering of illusionistic space. (Remarkably, the carving is never more than about two inches deep.) Spatial illusionism is further elaborated in a relief of a Victory figure bending to remove her sandal, perhaps in anticipation of stepping onto the holy ground of a temple to Athena Nike, from which this delicate, late 5th-Century BC balustrade carving comes.

And then there is the "Kritios Boy." So named because its style resembles that of bronzes linked to sculptor Kritios, the nearly four-foot-tall marble figure of a standing youth was unearthed by archeologists on the Acropolis more than 100 years ago. (An anonymous photographer's 1865 picture of the statue, headless, piled together with other newly unearthed sculptures, is included in a show of selections from the Gilman Paper Co.'s photography collection, which opened at the Met on Thursday.) Ever since, it has been universally embraced as a pivotal moment between the Archaic and Classical periods.

More important, this spectacular lump of chiseled marble has the capacity to change the way you think about sculpture. Typically, the figure's stunning step toward naturalism is acclaimed. But the ode to naturalism can miss the point.

At the Met, the "Boy" is installed just beyond two Archaic marble sculptures of young men, made at least 50 years before. A kouros , as this type of figure is called, sometimes commemorated the deceased and sometimes represented a deity, such as Apollo. The concept of the human body evident in these two figures, whether dead or godlike, is appropriately ethereal and timeless.

With varying degrees of skill, the unknown sculptors of the kouroi created figures poised between stylized, sharply patterned symmetry and straightforward representation of a standing person. Head erect, arms held at the sides, feet planted one before the other--the stylized symmetry even extends to the equal distribution of the body's weight on each leg.

Kouroi were carved for cemeteries or sanctuaries. The stylistic patterning clearly articulates the ritualized function of these statues, for pattern is repetition, and repetition is ritual.

With the "Kritios Boy," the Archaic ritual is broken. The figure is still frontal, arms at his sides and legs in a stride. But this figure is at rest; or, better, he's poised, illusionistically endowed with the potential for sudden movement in space. Timelessness and ethereality are not his world. Heavenly order has been replaced by the contingencies of earthly context.

The boy's head turns slightly to the right, his weight falls on his straightened left leg. The forward right leg, slightly bent at the knee, causes the hips to shift, lower on the right than on the left. As a result the rib cage opens up. Light plays across the surface of the carefully carved marble, gently highlighting the differences between its right and left sides.

Like all Greek sculpture, parts of this creamy white statue would have been painted, and his hollowed-out eyes would have been inlaid with fused glass or stone. (Our modern vision of bright, white, classical purity is largely a product of late-18th-Century interpretations of ancient Greece--that is, of Neoclassical desires.) However, something else about the figure makes him vastly different from what came before.

Simply, the chest of the "Kritios Boy" is expansive, as if he had just taken a lungful of air. The astonishing effect of this simple, descriptive maneuver is twofold.

On one hand, the solid chunk of carved marble suddenly seems to have an inside as well as an outside. Now, you don't just think about what the figure outwardly represents, but also about what its interior life might be.

On the other hand, the slightly puffed-up chest endows this sculptural figure of a strong, gracefully built young man with an air of gentle showing off. If the Archaic kouroi seem like markers that would inevitably be acknowledged in the predetermined patterns of communal ritual, then the Classical "Kritios Boy" is radically dissimilar in bearing. He's a figure that has actively put himself on display, in order to be noticed. The sculpture is riveting because, necessarily, his quiet exhibitionism acknowledges you .

In organizing the exhibition, the curators of "The Greek Miracle" have been dutiful in representing the alterations in sculpture that occurred throughout the century. In addition to small-scale objects, they have assembled architectural works made for four different 5th-Century temples. Loans have come from all the major museums of Greece--in several cases, loans never before made outside the country--and from repositories in London, Paris, Rome, Munich and Berlin. In New York, the Met has added several works from its own collection and from private collections as well.

The installation in the Lehman Wing is also wonderful, especially for the architectural reliefs. Displayed around the atrium, which is covered by a skylight that allows natural illumination to play across the sculptures, the reliefs may be examined close-up, or else viewed across the atrium's expanse in an approximation of the physical distance with which they would originally have been seen on a building's pediment or within a colonnade.

Still, despite the dutifulness of the selection and the skill at display--never mind the boggling greatness of the works of art themselves--this is a show without a point to make. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say: Its point is dubious and trivial.

In some respects "The Greek Miracle" is a sequel to "The Human Figure in Early Greek Art," a show of 67 figurative objects that traveled the country in 1988 (it was seen at the L.A. County Museum of Art). Like the current exhibition, "The Human Figure" was jointly organized by the National Gallery of Art and the Greek Ministry of Culture, and one of its star attractions was the very same kouros with which "The Greek Miracle" opens. It too had a nonsensical, long-outdated premise--namely, that the history of Greek art is a tale of artists heroically struggling to achieve an ideal of artistic naturalism.

Today, the sculptures in "The Greek Miracle" are being touted as talismans of democracy, forged in Greece 2,500 years ago and now flourishing in the United States. (The show is a kind of anniversary present to America.) The extraordinary naturalism of the Classical style is assumed to be a foundation upon which democratic principle was built.

Democracy is a good idea, but nature--human or otherwise--hasn't much to do with it. Nor is the mere provision of an entertaining public display sufficient reason for a show. We should expect more of museums.

Such empty-headed premises might be dismissible were it not for the very real dangers posed to fragile works of ancient art any time they are crated and shipped halfway around the world--and then unpacked and installed and repacked, unpacked and installed and repacked again. The danger isn't just the dramatic one of a sinking transport ship or an accidentally dropped sculpture. During the recent, record-setting storms in New York, condensation formed inside the glass roof of the Lehman Wing, requiring hurried wrapping in plastic of the "Kritios Boy" below, to keep him out of harm's way. (According to a Met spokesman, no damage was done.)

Compounding the problem, the Met and the National Gallery have reciprocated for the unprecedented Greek loans by sending off 72 Old Master and Impressionist paintings--an incomprehensible "Whitman's sampler" from their collections--to Athens. The exchange is little more than vacuous curatorial back-scratching, put to no worthwhile end.

In the last five years, the marble kouros from the National Archaeological Museum in Athens has traveled in the United States more than most any American has traveled in Greece. I'm grateful for having had a chance to see the "Kritios Boy," but I hope the next time will be under circumstances more appropriate--or even just plain reasonable.

* "The Greek Miracle: Classical Sculpture From the Dawn of Democracy, the Fifth Century BC," Metropolitan Museum of Art, 5th Avenue at 82nd Street, New York, (212) 535-7710, through May 23.

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