Throughout the history of Western civilization there have been a select few prizes, such as the Nobel Peace Prize, the Pulitzer Prize and the Grammy, that have transcended their chosen field to become embedded in the very fabric of our culture. A new prize is about to be added to that list, and one immensely talented Williams student will soon attain his or her rightful place alongside such award winning luminaries as Carter, Friedman and Cher as the winner of The Dr. Norman Hugo ’55 prize for reconstructing an ancient sculpture, not to mention picking up $100 in extra pocket change.
Like all great prizes, the story behind the Hugo’s creation is one of mystery, intrigue and nude Greek goddesses. The award traces its origin to the crowded streets of Istanbul, where, against the backdrop of a modern civilization built upon an ancient one, Eugene J. Johnson, professor of art, was wandering through a practically empty archeological museum with the president of the Williams class of 1955, and distinguished reconstructive surgeon, Dr. Norman Hugo. Fate had brought them together, or perhaps it was a Williams Alumni Cruise, but whatever the forces at work, neither man could possibly have imagined the monumental impact that they were about to have on the course of Western history.
Hugo, whom Johnson describes as an “amazingly witty and wonderful guy,” was explaining how, despite what many students are led to think, the Greeks were very wrong in many respects when it came to human anatomy. To demonstrate, he abruptly put his hands on the breasts of a nude Greek sculpture and demonstrated where the Greeks went wrong in their portrayal of the female anatomy. It was there and then that the germs of an idea were implanted in Johnson’s head.
A few days later, as the cruise was nearing its completion, Johnson was called upon to give a speech to sum up his experiences on the trip. Donning a fez given to him by Hugo, Johnson jokingly proposed a prize in Hugo’s honor to the student who could best reconstruct an ancient Greek statue.
“It never occurred to me that he would actually take me up on it,” Johnson said, but Hugo was enthusiastic about the idea and agreed to fund the prize. Half a world away in rural Williamstown, students could have little way of knowing just how much their lives were about to be transformed.
Although many impartial observers are tempted to draw a link between Hugo’s work as a reconstructive surgeon and his sponsorship of the award. Hugo said that he is not “artistically inclined” and that reconstructive surgery is actually much more engineering-related. Hugo himself will not be involved in deciding the winner, saying that it’s “probably just as well; I wouldn’t know what to pick.”
“I’m delighted that they are having the contest,” he said. “I hope it stimulates some interest.”
The rules of the contest are loose; students merely have to come up with a visual representation of how one of three partially destroyed Greek statues would have looked when it was intact.
The three sculptures are the “Venus De Milo” and two figures from the west pediment of the Parthenon, “Iris” and “Hermes.” Students can use any visual medium, from the computer to a model to a drawing, in order to present their vision. Any size of model will be accepted, although Johnson says that he hopes they won’t be over life-size as that would create a storage problem. The contest is all or nothing, with one student to be awarded the $100 prize and the fame that accompanies it, while all others will be left licking their wounds and waiting for the next iteration of what Johnson hopes will be an annual award.
To illustrate the spirit of the contest, Johnson asks “What is the Venus De Milo doing with her hands?” It is a question that has mystified Greek scholars for centuries, but by the time that the contest ends on Dec. 3 Johnson is confident that the question will have been answered conclusively by at least one exceptionally bright and talented Williams student.
However, such brilliance alone is not enough to guarantee the prize. Johnson also expects to “find some really clever and witty entries in the spirit of the award.” When pressed, Johnson refused to say whether he would give the prize to a more artistically beautiful piece or to a more imaginative and witty piece. Instead, he cryptically said that the judges will “choose whatever strikes us,” and that “we probably want to be surprised.”
Along with Johnson, the other two judges will be Aida Laleia and Elizabeth McGowan, both associate professors of art.
“I am immensely enthusiastic,” Johnson said. “I don’t know that any such award has been given at any institution before.”
While Williams has had many famous alumni in the past from former President Garfield to George Steinbrenner, not even our most illustrious graduate of all, Lee Hom Wang, was able to say that he won the Hugo. In less than two months, one student will doubtless go down in the annals of history.