I am fascinated by the discobolus silhouette that adorns the façade of the Greek Centre in Melbourne’s CBD. Viewed from close up, the edifice appears to be populated by disparate white rectangles, dispersed like an abstract mosaic of a diaspora. Move further away from the building however and walking towards Bourke Street, upon Exhibition Street, slowly but surely, the abstract diaspora coalesces to form the silhouette of the “Discobolus.” The silhouette is a visual poem of nervous tension. Faceless, we cannot discern his emotions for he is featureless. All we know is that this stationary figure is like a spring coiled and ready for action. Any moment now the discus he clasps so firmly, will be propelled into the future.
The opposite of a shadow, the Greek Centre’s Discobolus is an emanation of light, reminiscent of classical Greek sculptor Myron’s prototype, completed around 460BC. Two millennia and a half later, it is perhaps fitting that we seek in Myron’s Discobolus, the key symbol with which we seek identification. Art critic Kenneth Clark observed of it that: “Myron has created the enduring pattern of athletic energy. He has taken a moment of action so transitory that students of athletics still debate if it is feasible, and he has given it the completeness of a cameo.”
That is exactly the trajectory of our migrant story. Viewed over a century on, our achievements in the face of great adversity and privation seem almost impossible and in many ways were only effected through the force of sheer willpower. The Greek Centre’s Discobolus pays homage to our founding fathers’ indomitable spirit, while simultaneously serving as a visual reminder that we too must be vigilant, honed and ready for action if we are to ensure the survival and relevance of our community as a distinct entity, into the future. It is also forms a coherent vision of the confluence of the physical and the spiritual, a visceral ideal of harmony, rhythm and balance, and as such as worthy and as striking a point of reference as the original, of which ancient writer Lucian of Samosata, in his Philopeseudes observes:
“When you came into the hall,” he said, “didn’t you notice a totally gorgeous statue up there, by Demetrios the portraitist?” “Surely you don’t mean the discus-thrower,” said I, “the one bent over into the throwing-position, with his head turned back to the hand that holds the discus, and the opposite knee slightly flexed, like one who will spring up again after the throw?”
“Not that one,” he said, “that’s one of Myron’s works, that Discobolos you speak of…”
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Yet the perfection of the Discobolus has caused it to be appropriated in the past, by some of the more nefarious characters of history. Take for example, the beginning of Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl’s visual record of the 1936 Berlin Games, montaged as the 1938 film “Olympia.” To the strains of Wagnerian thunder, the camera pans across the Athenian Acropolis, showcasing a number of classical statues that depict the athletic ideal. A fog descends and from it emerges triumphantly, as if in revelation of a totem, Myron’s Discobolus.
That this is an idol to be worshipped rather than just a piece of art to be admired can be evidenced by the fact oil has been poured over it, as if by way of libation. Suddenly, the image fades and instead is replaced by an oiled, muscular athlete adopting the same pose. Exuding a sense of unmitigated power, he increases the tension of the scene by swivelling back and forth until, in one immense dynamic motion, he casts the discus forth. The inference is clear. The capabilities, ideologies and beauty of ancient Greece now belong to Nazi Germany, who is its rightful heir. Consequently the reverence and homage due to ancient Greece should now properly be afforded to Nazi Germany, which embodies the ideals the world so admires in ancient Greece.
In casting Myron’s Discobolus as a centerpiece of her fascist tableau, Leni Riefenstahl was pandering to the aesthetics of her employer, Adolf Hitler, who was obsessed with the ancient statue. Unaware that like their Middle Eastern counterparts, ancient Greek sculptures were painted, often in gaudy colours, Hitler saw in the white sheen of the marble, the apotheosis of the Aryan type, whereas their muscularity and harmony of proportions informed his view of the perfect German as being: “Swift as greyhounds, tough as leather, hard as Krupp steel.”
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While Myron’s original discobolus has been lost, a number of Roman copies survived, the earliest to be unearthed and the most famous of these being a first century AD bronze version known as the Palombara, found in 1781, in Rome. In 1937, Adolf Hitler negotiated to buy it, and eventually succeeded in 1938, when Galeazzo Ciano, Mussolini’s son in law and Minister of Foreign Affairs, sold it to him for five million lire, over the protests of Giuseppe Bottai, Minister of Education, and the scholarly community. It was shipped by rail to Munich and displayed in the Glyptothek of that city.
Presenting the sculpture to the people of Nazi Germany in July of the same year, Adolf Hitler made no secret of his conviction that the Discobolus, the original of which was created during the height of the classical period, when Athens was on the ascendant, the period held by many in the West to be the apogee of world civilisation, embodied the ideals of force, vigour and physical perfection which according to his ideology, were attributes that were the preserve of the Aryan race:
“May none of you fail to visit the Glyptothek, for there you will see how splendid man used to be in the beauty of his body… and you will realise that we can speak of progress only when we have not only attained such beauty but even, if possible, when we have surpassed it.”
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Considering that in Petronius’ Neronian-era satire “the Satyricon” it is noted that Myron “almost caught the very soul of men and beasts in bronze,” just how that soul was interpreted was of great significance. According to Hitler, we exist in a degraded and dissolute state compared to that of the glorious ancient Greeks and only adherence to the principles of National Socialism will permit those possessed of the requisite genetic predisposition to fully come into the inheritance which is their birthright.
As commentator Sarah Bond rightly points out, the “Discobolus” “remains a cautionary tale about the ways in which we speak about ideal bodies through the art we curate and display.” Whereas to the Roman Emperor Hadrian, an admirer of the statue, its form would have appealed to his love of athleticism, Hellenism and the male body, to Hitler, the same statue affirmed his perverse notions of racial supremacy and legitimacy through appropriation of ancient culture, notions that caused the deaths of millions of people. Ultimately, Hitler’s Discobolus was returned to Italy in 1948.
Understanding the context underlying the use of an artwork is as significant as appreciating the artwork itself in its own right. In adopting the Discobolus (which also appeared on a 1932 United States postage stamp) as the signature image of the Greek Centre in Melbourne, the Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne and Victoria has rehabilitated a cultural icon, granting it its own particular meaning rooted in our century long collective experience in Australia, celebrating our inclusiveness, our culture of tolerance and our immense optimism for the future.