It’s raining men, hallelujah, it’s raining men at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, where “The Olympic Games: Art, Culture & Sport” goes for the gold (literally) and the green(backs) through Sept. 2.
“There’s lots of eye candy here for the girls,” says Robin Garr, the museum’s director of education and a principal organizer of the exhibit.
Is there ever. From the classic “Diskobolos,” an 1888 plaster cast of an ancient sculpture of a discus thrower; to “The Education of Achilles” (circa 1776), Giovanni Battista Cipriani’s tenderly heroic painting; to riveting televised images of Jesse Owens and Muhammad Ali’s 1936 and 1960 Olympic triumphs respectively, “The Olympic Games” celebrates the taut male body, either in motion or primed for action.
That’s because the early history of the games was bound with the male-centric society of ancient Greece, where the Olympics originated around 776 B.C. in the city-state of Olympia. The ancient games were said to be crystallized by Hercules himself in honor of his father, Zeus, the king of the gods.
“It was primarily a religious festival,” says Laura Hovenac, the Bruce’s Zvi Grunberg resident intern, who has master’s degrees in classical archaeology and the classics from Florida State University and UCLA respectively. “But (the Olympics) were also designed to solidify Greek identity.”
Any free-born Greek male could travel, at his own expense, to Olympia, where every four years he could participate in such events as the foot race (the earliest Olympic contest), discus, long jump, javelin, boxing and wrestling. Horse racing and pankration, a kind of extreme fighting, soon followed.
Athletes participated in the buff, cleansing their bodies with olive oil that they would scrape off with a strigil, like the bronze one on view, since they didn’t have soap and loofahs, Hovenac says.
The sight of all that well-oiled, undraped masculinity would no doubt spice NBC’s Olympic ratings as much as it might’ve set ancient feminine hearts a-flutter. Alas, women were not only barred from competition; they were banned from spectatorship as well. In ancient Greece, the stadium – like the agora, or marketplace – was the province of men. The home was the women’s sphere.
The Bruce captures the testosterone-fueled atmosphere of the Olympic stadium (700-650 B.C.) with a 6-by-3-foot diorama featuring more than 1,200 athletes, judges and spectators, each no more than 5/8 of an inch tall and made out of copper, tissue and Elmer’s Glue. The diorama, created by Bob Leavy of Gainesville, Fla., suggests that the ancient Olympic stadium was at once sweeping and intimate, affording fans an opportunity to get up close and personal with their favorites as they vied for nothing (a laurel wreath) and everything (the honor of Greece and themselves).
The exhibit uses the original Olympic sports to span a phenomenon that was banned by the Christian emperor Theodosius I in 394 and revived in 1896 by Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the International Olympic Committee. Since then, the games have undergone many permutations, including the additions of winter sports (1924), local and international television (1936 and ’56), the Paralympics (1960), corporate sponsorship (1984) and Youth Games (2010).
There are prestigious loans here, ranging from an amphora (500-490 B.C.), used for mixing water and wine, from The Metropolitan Museum of Art that depicts the beyond-fight club violence of pankration, to Emanuela Pierantozzi’s “Thorax” (2002), the exhibit’s opening sculpture, from the Art of the Olympians Museum in Fort Myers, Fla.
But the Bruce has not limited its exploration of the Olympics merely to history and art. Like many Bruce experiences, this one is as interdisciplinary as it is interactive. Junior sports lovers in particular will get a kick out of the companion show, “The Games: The Science of Sport” (through Aug. 12). Here you have the chance to feel how weighty the discus is. The one used by female hurlers is lighter than that of the male discus throwers. Still, they’re pretty heavy. Whereas while the javelin couldn’t be lighter, it’s oh so difficult to balance.
Perhaps most revelatory of all is a chart that shows how various body types are suited to particular Olympic sports. You’d be hard-pressed not to find yourself in the chart.
What began as a celebration of the free-born Greek male, idealized in art, has become a celebration of the human body and spirit, in all their wondrous variety.