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This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the November 12,

2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

A Centaur’s Celebration

When Kentucky native Michael Padgett went home to

visit after launching his big show "The Centaur’s Smile" at

the Princeton University Art Museum in October, he and his father

went to the races. At Lexington’s famed Keenesland track they watched

horses and riders in intense competition, fused together as one. They

might as well have been watching mythological Greek Centaurs parading

before their eyes.

"The Centaur’s Smile: The Human Animal in Early Greek Art,"

an exhibition at the University Art Museum curated by Michael Padgett,

features more than 100 ancient artworks depicting Centaurs, Satyrs,

Sphinxes, Sirens, Gorgons, and other fantastic creatures of the Greek

imagination. The artifacts in bronze, gold, ceramic, stone, and terracotta,

dating from 750 to 450 B.C., are beautifully installed in two spacious

galleries whose low-level lighting protects the treasure and adds

to the show’s contemplative mood. In the first American exhibition

devoted to "composite creatures," ancient artworks and classical

texts are used to explore how Greek civilization conjured these fantastic

beings to express the struggle between the life of the body and the

life of the mind.

"Here, it’s all Centaurs, all the time," says Padgett as he

welcomes a visitor to the exhibit. A big, amiable man with a neatly

trimmed beard and mustache, Padgett is someone who will never find

a comfortable seat in an airplane. In fact, he says, he hasn’t found

enough leg room for comfort in McCarter’s brand new Berlind Theater.

And he certainly doesn’t fit any of our stereotypes of a scholar of

ancient art.

The great state of Kentucky is known for many fine products,

but it’s safe to say that it is better known for its horses than its

art historians. Yet classical art and archaeology have become Padgett’s

natural territory.

"We’re not from the horsey set, but we take an interest in `equine

velocity’ as Damon Runyon used to say," says Padgett with a laugh,

as he describes his day at the races. "My father won $1,200, but

I didn’t win enough to pay for my beer and my burger."

He explains how "The Centaur’s Smile" exhibit began with the

acquisition of a diminutive Greek statue of a Centaur, cast in bronze,

and dating to about 530 B.C. Considered a masterpiece of the Archaic

style, the lively horse-man wears long hair, a long beard, and an

enigmatic, knowing smile. The sculpture, whose place of origin and

original use are unknown, was a 1997 gift to the museum from Damon

Mezzacappa. It is considered one of the finest Greek bronzes in the


The Centaur of Greek legend was a mythic being with the body of a

horse and the head and torso of a man. Portrayed as badly-behaved

drunkards and troublemakers, interested only in satisfying their appetites

for sex, food, and alcohol, they embodied all the instincts that civilized

Greeks wished to overcome. Most centaurs were thought of as rude but

not evil. There were also two good and wise Centaurs. One was Cheiron,

the teacher of Achilles, Jason, and Asklepios, who is portrayed in

the exhibit’s artworks leading a great battle to drive out his wilder


Princeton’s gift of the small, smiling bronze Centaur led professors

Padgett and William Childs to organize an undergraduate seminar on

the topic in 2000. Yet far from satisfying their curiosity, the seminar

served to indicate a wealth of unexplored material on the subject.

Why do we still find Centaurs so fascinating? Padgett reminds us that

Greek mythology is still an integral part of our collective heritage.

"Centaurs were are part of our fantastic imagination as well,"

he says. "These creatures have been with us ever since antiquity

because they’re endlessly useful and pliable as symbols and metaphors.

So these are very familiar creatures in one sense.

"You see them in the art of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

And most students of art history are also familiar with sphinxes and

sirens and gorgons, whether they appear in Picasso etchings or academic

French bronzes or Renaissance paintings."

The Centaur, says Padgett, has particular resonance: "I mean there

you have a half-horse, half-human — half beast and half angel

— and that’s what human beings are."

"All of human civilization is an ascent from the animal, and yet

the animal part of us dominates our actions and thoughts and emotions

every day. So Centaurs are the quintessential symbol of the duality

within human beings."

How did such a tiny sculpture as the smiling Centaur precipitate such

a big exhibition?

"It’s a rarity," says Padgett, during a tour of the exhibition.

"Statuettes of Centaurs are rare, and this is also an exceptionally

fine piece. The detail of the face and the beard and the hair, the

modeling of the human and equine form, are really superior — so

it’s the quality.

"We went out of our way to assemble a group of the best,"

he adds, as he moves toward a display case holding more statuettes.

The show boasts many rare and priceless works loaned from collections

around the world including the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, the

Getty Museum in Los Angeles, and Harvard University in Cambridge.

The exhibit’s first gallery features a map of Ancient Greece and a

time-line for the period covered by the exhibition. All the rooms

provide wall texts that relate the colorful, dynamic stories of the

exploits of the gods, heroes, and creatures depicted in the art.

A notable and rather odd item in the show’s first room is a white

plaster cast that Padgett describes as a "miraculous" survivor

from the museum’s original 19th-century cast collection. Made from

a 450 B.C. marble relief sculpture from the Parthenon in Athens, it

shows a vigorous Centaur with the head and torso of a man and the

body of a horse, doing battle with the nude figure of a hero.

"This art museum was founded in 1882, and in those days they didn’t

think they were going to be able to collect major works of original

art, so they build a collection of casts," he explains. After

World War I, with the collapse of empires and the impoverishment of

Europe, the art market changed and there was much more classical art

on the market.

"At Princeton they began to realize that the cast collection,

which was all they thought they’d ever have, had fallen out of fashion.

The casts eventually ended up in storerooms and basements, and they

even lent them out to undergraduates to put in their rooms. The undergraduates

would have cast-breaking parties where they would smash them. But

this one miraculously survived." ("By the way," Padgett

adds, "casts are back in fashion now as teaching tools.")

Back in Padgett’s office at the Art Museum, one wall

is still occupied by a bulletin board, holding photographs of all

100 of the show’s artifacts, that was used for tracking their whereabouts.

Padgett was born in Paduca, Kentucky, and raised in Frankfurt. His

mother and father both worked for state government, as he did also

for some years.

Neither art nor Greek mythology were part of his early experience.

"I wasn’t on this course at all when I was younger," he explains.

"When I was very young, I was interested in guns and army and

the war, and that led me to read a lot of history."

Padgett earned his B.A. at the University of Kentucky. "Then I

was in the real world for six years, working for state government,

then I got married and later went back to school." Padgett’s wife,

Judith Boothe Padgett, manages the law offices of Patricia McGlone

in West Trenton.

Padgett earned his master’s degree at the University of Minnesota

in Minneapolis where he was mentored by Michael Conforti, now director

of the Clark Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts. He says Conforti

was instrumental in helping him along his career path.

Padgett tells the story of how he earned a top spot in his profession

with a down-to-earth wit that is characteristic.

When Conforti asked him what he was going to do with his master’s

degree, Padgett told him he wanted to be a curator. "Well you

can’t do that with a master’s degree, not in ancient art," Conforti

informed the neophyte. "He told me I should get a doctorate,"

says Padgett. "So I said, Where shall I go? And he said, Well,

do you have any money? And I said, No. And he said, Well, then go

to Harvard, they have lots of money. So I did."

"At Harvard I was fortunate to be taken under the wing of Emily

and Cornelius Dermeule. They were a formidable force in classical

archaeology in the second half of the 20th century," explains

Padgett who completed his Harvard doctorate in 1989 and joined the

staff of the Princeton art museum in 1992.

Padgett still retains a down-home sense of humor and a competitive

spirit. In his office he displays the November issue of Art & Antiques

magazine, a special annual of "100 Top Treasures" that features

the museum’s newly-acquired gold roundel or medallion. The piece,

made in ancient Persia around 400 B.C., depicts two heraldic lions

that share a single head. Getting his museum on the magazine’s cover

is clearly a coup.

"The Centaur’s Smile" exhibition was about two years in the

making and has set the standard for current scholarship on the subject.

There are Centaurs and artworks that portray the bull-headed Minotaur,

the half-woman and half-bird Sirens, and the famous Sphinx, with its

body of a winged lion and a woman’s head.

Look also in this show for another part-horse and part-human

animal with licentious instincts — the Greek satyrs. The satyrs

are best known from later Roman art, but in early Greek art, their

long equine tails and ears are closely related to those of the centaurs.

But, as Padgett is careful to note, the satyrs are more openly lustful

than centaurs — and they are the greater cowards.

How scholars arrive at such close readings of ancient art is part

and parcel of this exhibition, and one that Padgett enjoys discussing.

"We have to work with the evidence we have and it’s all fragmentary,

whether it’s the material objects or the literature — the literature

is even more fragmentary than the material evidence in a way,"

he explains.

"Of course people have been looking at these objects for hundreds

of years before me. There’s a vast literature on Greek art and archaeology,

and there’s agreement on many things and disagreement on others. But

there’s a lot of agreement on the basics, and so I can say with complete

confidence what certain things are, but others are more ambiguous,

and you can always find someone to offer an alternative explanation.

"Often we’re thrown on the objects and we interpret them in light

of all the evidence that we’re aware of, which is why you can’t just

look at a single Greek vase and try to decide what the subject is

— you have to look at hundreds of them."

Greek art was the prevalent subject of study in the founding of the

discipline of art history. Among its earliest practitioners was the

German scholar of the late 18th century, Johann Winckelmann.

"I have great respect for the earlier scholars and those of more

recent generations," says Padgett, reminding us, in an aside,

of the academic truism that "every generation gets its tenure

by throwing out the work of the previous generation." Yet he says

a lot of the 18th and 19th-century scholars’ work does hold up.

"Winckelmann, known as the first modern art historian in many

ways, introduced the basic methodology," says Padgett. "This

is to look closely at a work of art, and to be humble before it, and

let it speak to you, and not force it to say what you want it to say.

And not to be afraid to say, I don’t know, or I’m not sure. To use

all the evidence at your command — leavened with a good dose of

common sense."

"Individual conclusions were often wildly inaccurate in those

days, there were some bizarre interpretations, particularly of Greek

vases. It takes time to see more, to know the kind of materials you’re

looking at, to know what its purpose was. They were interpreting things

as they saw fit.

"But that was the foundation. It’s difficult to go back and judge

them now. People will surely be laughing at some of our interpretations

in 50 years, and saying, `How quaint, they even had a real exhibition

and they got the objects and they put them out there. And then they

did a real catalog — that’s the way they used to do it back then.’"

The Centaur’s Smile is accompanied by a 275-page catalog ("the

size of a paving stone," quips Padgett) that features three scholarly

essays and more than 200 illustrations. The Art Museum hosts a one-day

international symposium on Saturday, November 22, with papers presented

by five scholars. Padgett’s "All Centaurs, all the time" schedule

continues into next spring when his exhibit travels to the Museum

of Fine Arts, Houston, for exhibition from February 22 to May 16,


— Nicole Plett

The Centaur’s Smile, Princeton University Art Museum,

McCosh 50, 609-258-3788. Open Tuesday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.,

Sunday 1 to 5 p.m. Free. To January

11, 2004.

An Evening with Robert Fagles, Princeton University

Art Museum. Robert Fagles reads from his translation of Homer’s

"Odyssey." By reservation only, call 609-258-3043. Saturday,

November 15, 6 p.m.

Monsters and Mischwesen: The Human Animal in Early Greek

Art , McCosh 50, 609-258-3788. Day-long international symposium

in conjunction with "The Centaur’s Smile" exhibition. Saturday,

November 22, 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

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