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New York Kouros

Marble Statue of a Kouros (New York Kouros), c. 590–580 B.C.E. (Attic, archaic), Naxian marble, 194.6 x 51.6 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker

Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(soft piano music) - [Voiceover] We're in the room in The Metropolitan Museum of Art that's devoted to archaic Greek sculpture. - [Voiceover] Most of it funerary so sculpture meant to mark graves. - [Voiceover] But I just saw a man walk over to this 2,600 year old sculpture and put his hand as a kind of caress against her backside. Of course, this is wrong in so many ways but what happened is, for him, 2,600 years collapsed. That sculpture was this sensuous female figure. - [Voiceover] That man walking through the Met felt something that the Ancient Greeks felt when they made these sculpture. They were a lot of other things but they were also deeply sensual. - [Voiceover] We came into this room to look at a kouros. A funerary sculpture of a young man. It's a life size marble-- - [Voiceover] And we should say a nude young man because as we've just learned, although the female figure is clothed, and when the Greeks made these the female figures were clothed and the male figures were nude both were equally sensual. - [Voiceover] The only thing he's wearing is a little choker around his neck and a headband to fill it but what struck me was that the man who sculpted this kouros figure was creating something that was meant to trespass lifetimes to exist longer than any individual. - [Voiceover] It's made of stone and it endured for millenia and it was made to mark a tomb. So, indeed it was meant to last and to serve as a reminder not only of his life but of his connection to his family of his family's lineage across time. - [Voiceover] It's important to note that this would have been made for an aristocratic family but it's also important to note that this is not a portrait in the way that we think of that in a modern era. It's not in any way a likeness. It is, instead, a symbol. - [Voiceover] An ideal of manhood, of perfection. I'm interested in the way that in the sixth century we have sculpture during this archaic period that's made largely for aristocratic families for the elite in Athens and the surrounding area. When we move into the fifth century with the developments towards democracy we have sculptures that are made and commissioned for the state and by the state and that are very different than what we see during the archaic period. This early Greek image, so clearly dependent on the Ancient Egyptians. We could go through the Ancient Egyptian galleries and see figures very much like this. Usually, they're wearing a loin cloth or some kind of clothing representing the Pharaoh, representing the kings of Egypt. - [Voiceover] But there's a real distinction here which is that this figure is cut away from the stone. The stone between his legs is removed. There is no stone backing. He stands upright in this gallery, in the middle of the room, completely unaided by anything but his own two legs and there is a kind of extraordinary autonomy that results. - [Voiceover] Well, autonomy and so much more because when the Egyptians embedded that figure in the stone they gave it a sense of transcendence of timelessness, of being godlike in some way. By freeing the figure from the stone, we immediately have a sense of him being much more like us, much more human. - [Voiceover] Existing in our space. - [Voiceover] Exactly and moving into our space, of striding forward. - [Voiceover] Look at his stance. His shoulders are squared, his hips are squared, his leg is forward. - [Voiceover] There's a sense of movement but no real movement. - [Voiceover] Those limbs are locked in place even as they're representing symbolically the forward movement of the figure. - [Voiceover] So during the classical period, in the next century, the Greeks would make figures that stand in contrapposto that is they've shifted their weight. Their weight is firmly on one leg. One knee is bent and the whole body becomes asymmetrical. Here, really aside from that one foot being forward the figure is very symmetrical. It occupies a very strange place between being here present with us and also being absent from us and that's in the gaze too. There's a way that he looks past us. He doesn't engage us. - [Voiceover] The lack of contrapposto, the symmetry, does place him in some ways firmly in a world that is not ours. A kind of ideal, perfect world. - [Voiceover] His features have been reduced to geometric shapes, even his body parts are very geometric. - [Voiceover] As a result, very much isolated from each other so you have an arm which seems distinct from the torso as opposed to creating a smooth transition. In fact, you might even look at this sculpture and see it as very cubic, perhaps even referencing the four sides of the stone that this was carved from. One can imagine a block of marble that this sculpturer is approaching from four different sides. - [Voiceover] Actually, drawing the figure on those four sides and then cutting the stone away and using a system of proportions, very much like the Egyptians did. - [Voiceover] The sculpturer has been really careful about creating a kind of alternation between flat areas, for instance, of the face against much more complex and deeply carved areas, the braided or beaded hair, which creates this beautiful frame for the face. - [Voiceover] Mm-hmm. - [Voiceover] Now, this is a huge block of stone. It weights about 2,000 pounds. It's about a ton of stone that remains. It really is a tremendous feat that they've been able to create a sculpture that is balanced and supported on essentially two narrow angles. - [Voiceover] Without falling over. - [Voiceover] But you'll notice that the sculptor has left a little bit of a bridge between the clenched fists at his side and his hips to help support those arms because if they were free hanging they would be too fragile. - [Voiceover] And even so, you can see that this sculpture is 2,600 years old and it was obviously put back together by the museum. Over time it broke and it's always interesting to look for that and to notice what maybe a reconstruction and what's original. Although here, I think everything that we're seeing is original. (soft piano music)