The Torso Project

The Sasse Museum of Art Project

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A 2015 New York Times review of a breath-taking exhibit at the British Museum enthusiastically celebrated the exhibit's collection of ancient Greek art focusing on the human body. The Times review tried to capture the magic of the display in London more than two thousand years after the art was created:

 

Energy, movement and impetus within stillness; line, harmony and pro-portion: These things, so vital in the art of dance, also pervade "Defin-ing Beauty: The Body in Ancient Greek Art," now at the British Museum. What this exhibition shows is that the bod in movement, both realistic and transcendent, was at the center of Greek art and thought.

 

In comparing the marble sculptures to dancers, that NYT review focused on the vitality, balance, and dynamic weight that were so immediate in the exhibit's sculptures: figures which seemed ready to breathe, to speak, to leap into action. These sculptures, mostly Roman marble copies of earlier Greek bronzes, were contoured to reflect how the human body works, revealing the human promise of physical excellence accompanied by hoped-for moral excellence- arete (äpen) both fundamental virtues in ancient Greece, idealized by the culture's philosophers.

Over time, art historians have hailed the influence of such classical sculptures depicting the human form--and humanity itself--in all its potential for action, emotion, and energy. These sculptures in-spired artists of the late Renaissance and Baroque to further explore the promise of the human form and the human spirit. It is said that Michelangelo was inspired by the Belvedere Torso to create many of his most dynamic works in the Sistine Chapel and his muscular, marble sculptures.

Two of the world's most famous torsos, the Belvedere Torso and the Gaddi Torso, were not originally created as torsos. The Belvedere Torso (currently in the Vatican Museum) and the Gaddi Torso (currently in the Uffizi Gallery), both products of the 1st and 2nd century BCE, are remnants of more full-bodied works of art. The artists who created them, Apollonius and an unknown sculptor likely from the city of Pergamon, did not seek to carve torsos alone, without arms, head, and legs. The Belvedere Torso is believed to be what's left of the image of the warrior, Ajax, sitting on an animal skin and contemplating suicide. The Gaddi Torso is believed to be the remains of a bound centaur, a creature of Greek mythology caught between its untamed nature and the forces of civilization.

Both of these famous works could have been restored after they were discovered, as were other fragmentary sculptures from the classical age. Limbs and heads could have been re-created and imposed on the torsos which remained. But in both cases, it was decided that the torsos should be left alone. The strength and power of these figures did not need the embellishment of accessories. In and of themselves, they were complete.

The torso is, after all, where the heart resides, it is where breaths begin, and it is there where offspring begin to grow. Perhaps it is the torso that is the most eloquent expression of what the human being is capable of. And what of the torsos in this exhibit? Unlike those classical figures, these were not fragments from a more complete image of the human form; nor were they carved from a solid piece of marble, brought out and defined by an artist's hand. The torsos in this exhibit were created as torsos. And unlike those classical figures, they did not shout movement and energy in their beginnings.

These Sasse Museum Torsos were originally made of heavy-duty, white plastic with a matte surface. Before the artists in this exhibit laid hands on these pieces, they were static, stylized images, other- worldly abstracts of the male and female form. In their beginning, they seemed weightless, devoid of gesture and expression. They almost cried out for attention. They almost cried out for life.

And because of this ethereal quality, these Sasse Torsos were possibly, from their inception, more spiritual, more open to articulation, vitality, and energy when touched by an artist. It would be a mistake to look at these finished artistic expressions and see only decorated mannequins, figures embellished with color, designs and texture. In this exhibit, we see landscapes, we see the Garden of Eden, we see political and social statements about womanhood and manhood, and we see elegant creatures of being and meaning.

The torsos which originated in the art of classical Greece were created as fully-formed expressions of the physical excellence that early Greek philosophers promoted; the fragments that are left began as stunningly finished images of an agreed-upon ideal, intended to be uniformly venerated throughout the culture. The Sasse Torsos, by contrast, have their beginnings as quiet canvases, starting points for each artist to create their unique finished image, each one with its own perspective and philosophy. And at the core of these vibrant figures is a renewed sense of potential, an invigorated promise of what the human spirit is and can be.

 

Kate Flannery

Opening Reception Photos

Torsos and Artists

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Presented by the Progress Gallery 2021