Walters exhibit exalts athletes

Olympic Games is the impetus

July 22, 2004|By Kirsten Valle | Kirsten Valle,SUN STAFF

Athena, peering from a glass case marked with a tiny red laurel, is the first stop. She's small and modest, as is the signature owl on her arm, frozen for centuries in bronze contemplation.

Then there are the vases, awash in orange and black, the headless, marble-muscled statues and the bronze-cast figurines, all sinewy limbs and weathered reminders of the world's original heroes: the earliest Olympic athletes.

The Heroes of the Ancient Games, an array of ancient Greek art that opens as a walking tour tomorrow at the Walters Art Museum and continues through September, celebrates a time before worries of security and steroids, before the duel of amateur vs. professional and before 2004 sends the Olympics back to Athens.

"It is fascinating to see the parallels between the ancient and the modern world," said Sabine Albersmeier, assistant curator of ancient art at the Walters, by e-mail from Germany. "The Olympics connect different cultures, and the achievements of the athletes were celebrated in ancient times as well as today."

Those achievements are illustrated in the Walters exhibit. The tour consists of 12 artifacts - most are part of the museum's ancient art collection and many were acquired by museum founder Henry Walters. The pieces will be linked by laurel wreath stickers and an accompanying brochure, funded by the Baltimore-Piraeus Sister City Committee, and will pay homage to Greek gods and goddesses as well as the athletes.

The Black-Figure Panathenaic Amphora, a fifth-century B.C. vase decorated with a hieroglyph-esque image of Athena, is typical prize. Contest winners might receive up to 140 amphoras, containing about 1,480 gallons of olive oil, which ancient Greeks used for cooking and cleaning.

Beyond the low, beige-lined glass cases, life-sized marble statues symbolize the eternal value of victory. When an athlete won a contest, he would be immortalized by a local artist - although rarely realistically, as artists followed the popular classical body portrayal. The Young Athlete of Westmacott Type, bathed in natural light and posed relaxed and headless beneath the Walters' high ceilings, is a Roman marble copy of a Greek bronze original, dating from 440 B.C. The statue is chipped and eroded - several pieces of limbs are long gone -but nonetheless is stunning, with a lean, athletic build and muscled torso.

Past the statues are the detailed, if diminutive, bronze figures like the Boxer, from first-century B.C. Greece: a tiny, solid-looking man who holds a sponge in his leather-wrapped hands. The figure is surrounded by an audience, including the Child Boxer, with peculiarly developed muscles. Another artifact is the strigil, a curved instrument, once used to scrape layers of oil and sand from athletes' bodies, that vaguely resembles a metal banana peel.

The exhibit opens with a reception at 7 p.m. tomorrow, followed by an 8 p.m. slide lecture, during which Albersmeier will introduce the ancient games, their contests, prizes, victors and gods. A tour brochure is available through Sept. 26. "We want to use what we have to attract people who know and don't know our collection," said Regine Schulz, director of curatorial affairs in the ancient art department. Schulz has her own tie to the Games - her father was a long jumper in the 1936 Olympics.

The walking tour illuminates bits of Olympic history. The oldest games began in Olympia in 776 B.C., and while today's contests are secular, the ancient Greeks used athletics as a tribute to the gods. For Schulz, the exhibit is a reminder of how ancient artifacts connect history with modern interests. "Baltimore is a city where people are interested in sports," she said. "With these pieces, people can see how sports can be combined with culture."

Art tour

What: Heroes of the Ancient Games self-guided tour

Where: 4th floor of the Walters Art Museum, 600 N. Charles St.

When: 7 p.m. tomorrow

Admission: Reception tickets are $15 a person, available in advance or at the door.

Call: 410-547-9000

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