One Piece at a Time

“Torso of a Male Athlete”

A powerful Classical Greco-Roman sculpture from the Milwaukee Art Museum's permanent collection.

By - Jul 16th, 2012 04:22 pm
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Roman After Greek late 4th-century BC original Torso of a Male Athlete (The Oil Pourer), 1st–2nd century AD Marble height: 47 in. (119.38 cm) Gift of Suzanne and Richard Pieper M1994.285 Photo credit Michael Trope

Go to an art museum, pick a work, stand before it for a long time. Tell us what you see. TCD’s ongoing One Piece at a Time series began with that thought in 2010. TCD senior editor Tom Strini handled the OPAAT duties in 2010 and 2011. This summer, we have a variation. In the winter and spring, Strini worked with a class of graduate students in art at UWM. They did the One Piece drill at the Milwaukee Art Museum, wrote draft essays, then survived a writer’s boot camp with Strini. We’re publishing the results, one piece at a time. Here’s the second installment.

The hard marble sentinel Torso of a Male Athlete, the Oil Pourer, greets visitors entering the galleries of the Milwaukee Art Museum. The well-muscled torso, with abs like armor plates,  is echoed by the coat of armor on display in the gallery behind him. But the coat of armor has arms and a head, Torso of a Male Athlete, no surprise, lacks a head and has just one truncated limb. The trunks of his missing limbs end in clean breaks, as if the breaks were intentional. This adds to his powerful presence.

The sculptor rendered the athlete life-sized realistically, with hard, prominent muscles and slender proportions. This Roman copy of a Greek original fits the ancient Greek ideals of beauty. Light from above creates prominent shadows under the outer edges of the pectoral muscles and shelf of the oblique muscles above the hips. Tiny golden flecks in the pale, honey-tinted marble glint in the lights.

The lines of this man’s six-pack abdominals are still visible, but worn with age and muted from the direct lighting. The centuries have even cost him his nipples. The wear of time has worn the muscles and pocked the surface. But the form’s beauty allows you to dismiss these imperfections. Moving around the sculpture, you see the back of the piece has maintained its beautiful curvature from the shoulders into the small of the back and out again along the bubble of the butt. Its contrapposto stance emphasizes this curve.

His pedestal heightens his position as guard of the galleries. A large black box lifts him and makes him seem more than life-sized. The other ancient Mediterranean artifacts in the room are all much smaller, giving him extra prominence in the space. A sarcophagus is the only larger piece on display, but it lies on low platform, and its orientation shrinks its visual weight as you enter the gallery.

Truncated as this ideal form may be, its imposing force cannot be denied.

(Previously published in this series: Aneesha Baledeosingh on Jules Olitski’s Heat Resistance.)

 

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