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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
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
"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,"
"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
"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
McCosh 50, 609-258-3788. Open Tuesday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.,
Sunday 1 to 5 p.m. Free. www.princetonartmuseum.org. To January
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.
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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