by Kylie Madry
The Olympics, the Andes and Google Earth – what do the three have in common?
They’re all topics of the Art History Department’s June “Art History After Hours” lectures, dreamed up by department chair Adam Herring to keep alumni connected online while in-person events are canceled.
“We made these lectures late at night, after work, dinner, after the kids are in bed, to make them accessible – bringing fascinating stories from the past straight to your living room,” says Assistant Professor and Karl Kilinski II Endowed Chair in Hellenic Visual Culture Stephanie Langin-Hooper, who kicked off the series with her lecture on “Art of the Olympics and Other Ancient Greek Sports” on Tuesday, June 9.
The professor noticed the intrigue around ancient sports when she was in Greece last summer with her family, researching the four Pan-Hellenic sanctuaries that housed major athletic competitions open to male citizens from all ancient Greek cities (one of those competitions being the Olympic Games).
“My older son, who was 3 and a half, was really interested in ancient Greek sports while we were there. He loved the idea that you could still run around the ancient stadiums,” she says. “I thought, if my son is more excited about this than ‘Paw Patrol,’ the topic has a fairly broad appeal.”
That’s the thing – it’s something we can all relate to, Langin-Hooper says, adding that close to 250 people signed up for the lecture. “Sports crosses cultures,” Langin-Hooper explains.
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Scale and its effect on the view is a major part of my research. There’s nothing like seeing an artwork in person – or, in this case, with a person – to really understand how big it is. Some things are much bigger than expected, such as wine vessels or grave reliefs from Classical Athens. Others, like many Minoan frescoes, can be a lot smaller. #smuarthistory #smumeadows #meadows50 #arthistory #summerresearch #greece #scale
Even today, remnants from the original Olympic Games remain. The first event was called the stadion, a 210-yard foot race named for the building it took place in – the word eventually became stadium in Latin, which we use today. Later, events like wrestling, boxing and chariot races were added.
“It was thousands of years ago that men ran these races in Olympia,” Langin-Hooper says, “and yet, people today still participate in the same sports.”
Luckily, some things have changed since the Games began – they were traditionally all-male, and performed in the nude.
“It was thought then that clothing impeded movement,” Langin-Hooper says. “The Games were a celebration of the male body, and what it means to be an athlete.”
The art, too: Langin-Hooper mentions the sculpture “Boxer at Rest” as an example of typical Hellenistic work of the time. The piece depicts an older boxer, exhausted and defeated, contemplating his own humanity.
“Art like this makes us ask the question, ‘Who are you?’” Langin-Hooper says. “These themes are so much bigger than just sports.”
We’re still asking ourselves these “big picture” questions, the art historian says, just like the ancients. She delves into that in her latest book, Figurines in Hellenistic Babylonia: Miniaturization and Cultural Hybridity, which was released in February.
Figurines may seem like a thing of the past, “but we’re surrounded by tiny pictures all the time,” Langin-Hooper says, especially in the Instagram era. “This is something humans have been doing for millennia. We surround ourselves with images we like, and we show the ‘you’ that’s fit for public consumption” – whether that’s a carefully sculpted miniature or a meticulously edited photo.
Admission to the art history lectures is complimentary, but registration is required. Each 45-minute lecture begins at 9 p.m. CDT and takes place live via Zoom, followed by a brief question and answer session with the speaker.
The third lecture will be “Virtual Voyages: Land Art via Google Earth” by Professor Anna Lovatt on June 23.