The first major exhibition of ancient Greek art ever mounted in Washington will open in late January at the National Gallery of Art, officials of the museum and the Greek government announced today.

"The Human Figure in Early Greek Art" will contain 67 Greek works, dating from the 9th to the 5th centuries B.C. On loan from the Greek government, it will be a first step toward a Greek-American cultural exchange plan, said Melina Mercouri, the country's minister of culture, here yesterday. "A cultural exchange is a people's exchange," she added. "I know of no other force that can bring more understanding, more mutual respect." Mercouri says she has agreed "in principle" with United States Information Agency Director Charles Z. Wick to exchanges on a larger scale.

The majority of objects in the show -- marbles, bronzes, terra cotta and painted vases -- have never been on display outside Greece. Of particular significance are several marble kouroi, statues of idealized young men, and their female counterparts, koroi, from the Acropolis in Athens.

Mercouri envisions future exchanges spanning a variety of cultural disciplines, including dance, music, and cinema. "We would like to see America's artistic face," she said, "something other than beautiful dollars and 'Dynasty.' "

The theme of the upcoming show will be the importance of ancient Greek art in the formation of a western cultural esthetic. "You could feel the energy being released -- a racing burst of human spirit," said J. Carter Brown, director of the National Gallery. "Everything from the Romans to today came from these Greek originals -- the fountain of all."

The arrival of the exhibit in Washington is considered particularly important. In a city full of Greek-influenced architecture and governmental principles, there are almost no examples of classical antiquities in museums. "We are delighted for the opportunity to get these fine examples ..." said Brown.

Diana Buitron, guest curator for the exhibit, has chosen works that show a progression. The oldest is a primitive clay centaur from the Greek Dark Ages. The works quickly become more sophisticated, she says, pointing to the more naturalistic and well-defined later drawings and statues. "This was the first real and vibrant expression of the humanity, the basis for the celebration of the human figure," said Buitron.

Mercouri also announced another show, "Holy Image, Holy Space: Icons and Frescoes from Greece," scheduled for Baltimore's Walters Art Gallery next Aug. 20 through Oct. 16.

The National Gallery expects to open its show Jan. 31. The works will arrive around Christmas, aboard six different flights to cut the cost of insurance against total loss.

The National Gallery's contribution to the exchange has not yet been announced, but Brown acknowledged "something up our sleeves." He added, "We've learned the letters 'I,' 'O,' 'U' in the Greek alphabet.