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Anavysos Kouros

The Anavysos Kouros, a life-size sculpture from ancient Greece's archaic period, represents an ideal male youth. Inspired by Egyptian art, these kouros figures evolved from stiff, blocky forms to more natural, rounded shapes. Often used as grave markers, they symbolize nobility and strength. Traces of original paint reveal their vibrant appearance. Speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker & Dr. Beth Harris. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(Cheerful Piano Music) Voiceover: We're in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens looking at the Anavysos Kouros. Voiceover: A sculpture from the archaic period, the sixth century BCE in ancient Greece. Voiceover: It's about life size, a little bit larger, and the idea of monumental sculpture of an ideal male youth is a very powerful motif in Greek culture. Voiceover: Thousands of these figures were produced. We give them the generic name of kouros, or "Youth". They could be used as grave markers, as offerings in sanctuaries, and sometimes, though more rarely, they represented a god, usually the god Apollo. Voiceover: Some Art Historians think that perhaps these monumental sculptures were inspired by contact with ancient Egypt. Voiceover: Well, you can see the resemblance to Egyptian sculpture very easily. Voiceover: And look at the traces of the original paint in the hair, on the eyes, it really gives us a sense of what this would have looked like initially. Voiceover: so one of the things that happens when you talk about the kouros figures is that you compare them to one another because they're of a type, but there's also the tendency to compare them to human bodies. How life-like is it, or how far from being life-like is it? Voiceover: in the earlier kouros, you have a greater sense of stiffness, of abstraction of the human body, where forms are represented almost as symbols rather than as an articulation of what we see in the human body. Voiceover: And in those earlier figures, too, you have the sense of the body corresponding to a block of stone, so you have four very distinct views. This particular kouros shows us the way that during the sixth century, during the archaic period, the figures become more natural, more lifelike, more rounded, less blocky. Voiceover: Well, look at the swelling of the calves, of the hips, of the abdomen. and certainly of the arms and the cheeks. In earlier figures, what we saw was a sort of inscribing in the stone, almost as if you were drawing into the stone, whereas here you have modeling in the round. Voiceover: And in some earlier figures, we see a hard line where the torso meets the legs, and here that's been softened, so there's a more gradual transition. Voiceover: And the forms of the face are more integrated. In fact, the forms of the entire body, one piece to the next, one part of the body to the next, is more integrated. So you see a more natural flow of the cheeks, to the sides of the face, to the temples, to the forehead. But there's still continuity with these older standing nude figures. The left leg is out, both knees are locked, the weight is evenly distributed on both legs. We still have traditional braiding of the hair, we still have that traditional headband and those wonderful curls underneath it. Voiceover: And still, that archaic smile, which speaks of a figure that transcends this world, that has a sense of aristocratic nobility, and in fact this figure was set up by an aristocratic family as a grave marker to their son, who died in war. There were often inscriptions of the bases of the kouros figures, and there was a base with an inscription found near the find spot of this particular figure. Voiceover: That was probably from about the same period, and some art historians think that it belongs to this sculpture, some don't. but in any case, it's instructive. Voiceover: The inscription reads "Stay and mourn "at the monument of dead Kroisos, "who raging Ares slew "as he fought in the front ranks." So just to unpack that a little bit, Kroisos would be the name of the figure-- Voiceover: The man who died. Voiceover: And Ares is the god of war. So this is obviously a youth who fell in battle, which is the most noble way to die, the way to die that's associated with the ancient Greek heroes that we read about in the Iliad. Male vocieover: And look at the sense of potential, of this life that was cut short, but at this moment of greatest strength, of greatest beauty. And it's important to recognize that this is not a portrait, this is not a specific individual. There's a reference to an individual here, but the body that's being represented is an ideal, it is a perfected body. and as with so many of these standing male figures, the artist has had to leave a little bit of a bridge attaching the hands to the hips in order to strengthen the object. Voiceover: Or else the limbs could easily break off. Voiceover: This figure was found in 1936 and was spirited out of Greece, and was recovered by the Greek Police in Paris, and brought back a year later. Voiceover: the intention was to sell it on the market outside of Greece. Voiceover: And this has been a continuous problem, grave robbing of antiquities in Greece and in other countries because the market is so strong. It's created not only a black market, for stolen objects, but also a market for forgeries which has complicated archaeological studies. Voiceover: But the good thing about this figure was that he was found, he was returned to Greece, and we can all see him here in the Archaeological museum in Athens. (Cheerful Piano Music)