The Discobolus or “discus thrower” is one of the most iconic artworks of classical antiquity. Originally sculpted in bronze by an Athenian man called Myron (born in the fortress-city of Eleutherae in the 5th century BC), the statue has gained fame largely through its many bronze and marble copies made by the Romans.
The sculpture was well-known in the ancient world. The Roman rhetorician and satirist Lucian of Samosata (c. AD 125 – c. AD 180) mentioned Myron in a work called Philopseudes. In a dialogue between characters Tychiades and Philocles, we find the lines:
‘Have you never noticed as you came in that beautiful one in the court, by Demetrius the portrait-sculptor?’ ‘Is that the one with the quoit,–leaning forward for the throw, with his face turned back towards the hand that holds the quoit, and one knee bent, ready to rise as he lets it go?’ ‘Ah, that is a fine piece of work, too,–a Myron;…
~ From The Works of Lucian of Samosata (2011, translated by H. W. Fowler and F. G. Fowler)
The Discobolus is a physically gorgeous, young male athlete frozen in the pose of launching his disc. Although he is involved in a demanding situation, his face and body are unusually relaxed and composed. His head is turned towards his sporting equipment (but in some restorations he is “wrongly” looking ahead). In his 1956 book The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form, the British art historian and aesthete Kenneth Clark (1903-1983) observed that Myron captures two particular qualities – rhythmos (harmony and balance) and symmetria (bodily proportion). Regarding the action of the discus thrower, Clark wrote:
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…to a modern eye, it may seem that Myron’s desire for perfection has made him suppress too rigorously the sense of strain in the individual muscles.
Over the centuries, notes Dr. Ian Jenkins (‘The Many Sides of Myron’s Discobolus’, June 2012, the British Museum), a curator at the British Museum and expert in ancient Greek sculpture, the statue has acquired many meanings. In addition to being a depiction of athletic perfection, it has been a paradigm of homoeroticism and a piece of political identification. According to Jenkins, the Discobolus is “arguably the most famous statue in the world.”
In the twentieth century, however, the legacy of the Discobolus was significantly darkened due to its connection with the Third Reich. Hitler was so infatuated with the statue that in 1938, he bought a copy of it (known as the Discobolus Lancellotti or the Discobolus Palombara) for five million lire from Galeazzo Ciano, the Foreign Minister of Fascist Italy from 1936 to 1943. (Click here to see a photo of Hitler with the statue in Munich).
In an article on BBC Culture, British art critic Alastair Sooke writes that the Nazis drew much aesthetic inspiration from the art of ancient Greece and the Discobolus in particular featured prominently in the opening sequence of the of the two-party 1938 film Olympia, which documented the Berlin Olympics (also known as the “Nazi Olympics”) that had taken place two years earlier. Olympia was directed by the acclaimed German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (1902-2003), who, in 1935, had made the innovative Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will. [Although, her involvement with the Nazis greatly damaged her film career, Riefenstahl lived a long and fairly comfortable life. She denied knowing about the Holocaust and won several libel cases.]
In his article, Alastair Sooke quotes Professor Rolf Michael Schneider of the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich:
Without the Classical tradition, the Nazi visual ideology would have been rather different. Like all hunters, they hunted for a priceless object – and as the statue could not say no, they used the Discobolus for their perverse ideologies. The perfect Aryan body, the white colour [of the marble], the beautiful, ideal white male: to put it very bluntly, it became a kind of image of the Herrenrasse or ‘master race’ – that’s what the Nazis called themselves and the Germans.
The Discobolus became a poster boy for Nazi causes and although the copy of the statue in Germany was returned to Italy in 1948 (where it was placed in Rome’s National Museum five years later), Sooke concludes, “it would be a long time before the taint of its association with Hitler disappeared.”
The Art of Greece and Rome (2004) by Susan Woodford
Taste and the Antique: The Lure of Classical Sculpture, 1500-1900 (1982) by Francis Haskell and Nicholas Penny
The Greek Body (2009) by Ian Jenkins
The Discobolus (2012) by Ian Jenkins
The Faustian Bargain: The Art World in Nazi Germany (2000) by Jonathan Petropoulos
Art and Politics in the Third Reich (1999) by Jonathan Petropoulos
Featured: Discobolus in the National Roman Museum by User “Livioandronico2013”, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons
Other (1): Discobolus by User “MatthiasKabel”, CC BY 2.5, Wikipedia
Other (2): Discobolus by User “Valerio Perticone”, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikipedia
Other (3): Discobolus by User “Carole Raddato”, CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons
Other (4). Adolf Hitler and Leni Riefenstahl by User “Beyond My Ken”, CC BY-SA 3.0 DE, Wikimedia Commons