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Kritios Boy, from the Acropolis, Athens, c. 480 B.C.E., 3' 10" high (Acropolis Museum, Athens), Speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris.
Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.
Video transcript
(piano music) Steven: We're in the new Acropolis museum, in Athens, looking at the Kritios Boy. Beth: We're in the very late archaic period. Some call this the severe style. We might even call this early classical. Steven: It's really this transition between the late archaic and the early classical. The sculpture is such a great embodiment of that. Beth: It allows us to see the transition between the archaic kouros, and the much more naturalistic, movement-filled figures that we find on the Parthenon, for example, on the frieze or in the metopes. Steven: This sculpture was probably broken originally when the Persians invaded Athens and desecrated the Acropolis. This was a huge blow to the Greeks, and when they finally recovered this territory, they took the sculptures that had been destroyed, and they buried them, so it's ironic that the reason that these sculptures are preserved is in part because they were destroyed, but to make the story even more complicated, before the Greeks had been defeated by the Persians, they had an earlier victory at Marathon. Beth: Where an overwhelming force of Persians was defeated. Steven: That first victory by the Greeks, over the Persians, is important to understand, in relationship to the sculpture, because some art historians have suggested that the new-found naturalism that we see in the sculpture is a result of the new sense of self; the new sense of self-determination, that came in the wake of the victory over the Persians. Beth: And a sense of Athens as the leader among the Greek city-states, who united against the Persians. Steven: So like the earlier kouros figures, this is marble; it's a standing nude; he's relatively still, although there is this potential for movement. Beth: With the kouros figures, we had a figure that was both standing still and moving simultaneously, but we have incipient movement. Movement about to take place. We have a sense of process, and I think it's that unfolding of time, that makes this figure seem so much a part of our world, instead of the timeless world of the kouros. Steven: The kouros figures were depicted as stick figures. There were mechanical joints, that were suggested, but did not really exist. Beth: Didn't really work. Steven: That's right. There was no way for those figures to actually move, whereas this figure, the much more naturalistic renderings of the volumes of the body; the understanding of the musculature; the understanding of the bone structure; and especially the transitions from one part of the body to the next, make the potential for movement believable. Beth: Although we don't see the feet, and the right side, we don't see the calf, there is a sense that this figure is standing in a pose that art historians call contrapposto. That is, his weight is shifted onto one leg, and here's the important part; as a result, other things happen within the body, so that one shift in one part of the body affects the rest of the body, so the body acts in unison. Steven: We can see that very clearly with the knees. The weight-bearing knee is higher than the free-leg knee, and that's because that knee droops down a little bit. The axis of the hips are no longer aligned. The weight-bearing leg has a hip that juts upward, into the torso, where the free leg, the hip hands down. Beth: The shoulder above the weight-bearing leg actually drops down slightly, and that compresses the torso in between. His lifelikeness is carried into the head, which shifts a little bit, so we don't have that strict frontality that we saw in the kouroi. The symmetry of the body is broken. In actuality human beings are never symmetrical, right? Our bodies move and shift. Steven: That's why the kouroi seem so artificial. Beth: Exactly; they seem transcendent and timeless, but because the Kritios Boy is asymmetrical, we have a sense of his engagement with the world. Gone is that archaic smile, that seems to transcend reality, but one of the really interesting things about the Kritios Boy is, if we look from the side, we see an arch in his back, and there's a sense that he's moving forward, and holding himself back at the same time. He's a bit of a tease. Steven: He's in a very relaxed pose. Beth: We should mention that the Greeks had started to make bronze sculptures just before this, and bronze allowed artists to create sculptures with limbs more separated from the torso, or limbs lifted into space. Steven: And you can see why that could be tricky in marble. In fact this figure has lost its leg, and it's lost its arms. On his left hip you can still see a fragment of the strut or bridge that would have helped support the arm that would have been next to it. That also lets us know that the arm really was at his sides, very much like a traditional kouros. Beth: We see the desire on the part of the Greeks, on the part of this artist, to create a sculpture that's more open, where the limbs and the torso are more separated from one another, but in marble that's really hard to do. Steven: One more point about the interest in bronze. Unlike so much marble sculpture, here we have eyes that have been hollowed out. They would have been inset, probably, with glass paste eyes, that would have been very lifelike, and that's a technique that was commonly used in bronze. In traditional marble sculptures, you actually have the eye as part of the solid piece of marble, and they would have just been painted. There is this interesting reference to the technique of bronze casting, even here in a marble sculpture, and I should mention that the reason we call the Kritios Boy is because the Kritios sculptor was an important sculptor in bronze at this time, of which this is very stylistically similar. In the entire body, we've moved away from the linear representation of symbols of the body, and we now have these smooth, beautiful, volumes, that represent this Greek ideal of the athletic male youth. Beth: That represented the peak of human achievement, and also the qualities of the divine. (piano music)