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 world.

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 brethren.

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, 2004.

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. www.princetonartmuseum.org. 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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