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Let the games be seen

Greek athletes exalted in MFA exhibit of Olympic proportion

Thanks to some savvy collectors among the Bostonians of 100 years ago, the Museum of Fine Arts has a superb collection of Greek antiquities. In the United States it is second only to the classical holdings of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, according to Christine Kondoleon, the MFA's curator of Greek and Roman Art. Much of the collection usually languishes in storage; what's on view permanently is tucked away in a corner of the building where there is no climate control -- just a few electric fans.

So the new temporary exhibition "Games for the Gods," in the heavily visited Torf Gallery, would be welcome even if it weren't a clever way of connecting the museum with this summer's Olympics in Athens. The show of 180 objects comes mostly from the MFA's trove but is augmented with significant loans: One from Athens is a marble relief with five oarsmen beneath an inscribed text listing the members of two teams of 12 men each. (It's significant because the original games weren't team events but celebrations of individual achievements.)

Torf is currently crammed with marble sculptures, red- and black-figured vases, cups, bowls, coins, and other ancient objects, along with photographs of modern-day Olympians (including portraits of Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Mike Tyson, both by Herb Ritts).

The photos read like a misguided attempt to bring the show into the present, a nod to the kind of nostalgia that has prevailed at Olympiads ever since the games were "revived," in 1896. But the exhibition's most interesting point is that the modern Olympics have almost nothing in common with those held in ancient times.

The games of antiquity were religious rites, meant to honor Zeus. Athletes spent a month in seclusion before the events, purifying themselves. Only free Greek males were allowed to participate (thinking globally was definitely not a goal). The mothers of the athletes instructed them that winning was the point, not how you played the game. A great athlete could graduate to being a god. Trying to link the ancient and contemporary games through photos muddies the vast differences between them.

As it stands, the exhibition is confusing because of its mix of media, styles, and eras, and because not all the works are directly connected to the Olympics. The division of the show into four themes (Origins of the Games, Athletic Events, the Training Grounds, and Victors and Prizes) doesn't clarify matters, and the show never really gels.

As individual works, though, these are fascinating -- and some are masterpieces. An Etruscan alabaster funerary urn (circa 150-100 BC) is an exquisitely carved relief depicting the mythic drama of King Oinomaos trying to keep his daughter from getting married by challenging her suitors to chariot races that he always won. When the daughter, Hippodamia, fell in love with Pelops, she sabotaged her father's chariot so that it would fall apart. Pelops won the race, Dad was crushed under his own horses, and the happy couple wed and ruled the kingdom. The Olympics don't figure into the urn's iconography, but Pelops is said to have gone on to found the chariot races at the games. According to the show's lavish catalog (written by Kondoleon and a senior MFA colleague, John J. Herrmann Jr.), the ancients didn't mind that Pelops had cheated in order to win his race with Oinomaos. Greek athletes were supposed to be cunning. (In the real Olympics, though, there were limits: A wrestler who bit his opponent, for instance, was whipped. Take that, Mike Tyson.)

Most of the marble figures in the show have missing body parts, but it doesn't really matter. Contemporary art conservation doesn't favor prosthetics, and viewers have come to regard these scars of antiquity romantically.

Along with the examples of the idealized male body you expect, the show has a few odd figures. One is a marble statue of a youth, a copy of a 2d century AD Roman work. The boy still has his baby fat, and his arms are soft, without muscular definition. He turns his head away from the weights slung over his shoulder and the punching bag at his side, as if wistful about leaving childhood.

In addition to the contemplative figures, there are those full of action. A bronze statuette of a wrestler lifting his opponent off the floor in a waistlock is just 6 inches high, but its sense of weight and energy are epic. There are a surprising amount of small objects in the show, including a tiny Roman silver bull, maybe an inch high: Sacrifices of cows and bulls appeased the gods and the populace, who relished a rare meal of roasted meat.

The many bowls, vases, and cups are the stars of the show. The athletes adapt brilliantly to the shapes they're assigned. One charioteer ducks under the handle of a vase; another pushes his foot against the rim of a bowl to stabilize himself as he lunges forward. An athlete trains to the accompaniment of flute music; a rider looks back to check how much of a lead he has; a long-jumper is caught midair, his body folded in two; torch racers run toward an altar; sprinters are so in synch they look like a chorus line; winged goddesses swoop down to intervene in mortal matters.

It's refreshing to see athletes working out without the jungle of exercise machines people use today; it's a reminder that all you really need to keep fit is your body and a sufficient amount of space and time.

While the variety of objects is overwhelming, most are at least visible from all sides, thanks to Plexiglas cases that allow you to see three-dimensional objects in the round.

Much of the MFA's Greek art was acquired abroad by Edward Perry Warren, scion of a Beacon Hill family. From 1890 to 1929, he based himself in Sussex, in what's been described as a frat house holding a permanent toga party. Warren and his partner, John Marshall, made some spectacular purchases for the Boston museum.

When the two split up, though, Marshall started buying for the Met. Had they stayed together, Kondoleon says with a sigh, the MFA's collection could have topped New York's. Ah, well.

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