‘Defining Beauty: The Body in Ancient Greek Art’ at The British Museum

Dionysus from the Parthenon

Dionysus from the Parthenon

‘What is beauty? The nature of the following question has ancient roots, famously so with classical Athenian philosopher Socrates, yet still resonates with us all on a personal level today. My love of all things ancient recently enticed me to visit the latest exhibition at the British Museum, Defining Beauty: The Body in Ancient Greek Art, and to reconsider this question.

The exhibition explores the ancient Greek perception of the idealised human form and the related concept that physical beauty can only be achieved by also embodying the intangible core values held by a society – or simply, a moral mind. The exhibition is wonderfully immersive; through a thoughtful combination of artefacts visitors are drawn into the culture and philosophy of the ancient Greeks and are invited to see beauty through their eyes and to draw parallels with modern ideals and perceptions of the beautiful.

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Doryphoros of Polykleitos

Some of the highlights are simply stunning;  a rare and lovely intact male bronze with inlayed features immediately welcomes you to the exhibition, whilst  the discontented  goddess Aphrodite stares warningly at you as she realises a mere mortal has glimpsed her nude form preparing to bathe. The Doryphoros of Polykleitos stands to attention and reveals a muscular figure that most men would be envious of even today, although some features are clearly anatomically impossible to obtain, and a wonderful Roman marble copy of Myron’s Discobolus (Discus Thrower) shows the body in action but with the subtext of illuminating the balance of strain and relaxation in life, a philosophy the classical Greeks subscribed to.

Myron’s Discobolus

Myron’s Discobolus

The exhibition explores sculptural forms of the ancient body from its foundations within ancient Egyptian and Cypriot sculpture, to its own influence on the origins of Buddha’s depiction in ancient Eastern art. A particularly refreshing theme examines the use of colour in Greek sculpture, and includes many replicas demonstrating how some objects would have originally been decorated from scientific analysis of pigment residues on originals. Amongst many fantastic examples a scaled down bronze replica of the Athena Parthenos, which would have stood in the cella of the Parthenon on the acropolis in Athens 2,500 years ago simply dazzles the imagination.

Other ideals related to the question of beauty and the body are explored through various themes including age, gender, ethnicity, occupation, death and those ideals that transcended traditional boundaries. However, sex and sexuality is a predominant and continuous line throughout and illustrated by numerous examples where the evocative aspect of the idealised body has been deliberately enhanced or reduced to communicate whatever ideal the sculptor had in mind. The Sleeping Hermaphroditus on loan from the Borghese Gallery in Rome, a female form sculpture which also incorporates male genitalia, encapsulates this questioning of male and female beauty well.

Sleeping Hermaphroditus

Sleeping Hermaphroditus

The Baker Dancer

The Baker Dancer

Less common examples of the female form are also present in the exhibition: statuettes of  fashionable Athenian ladies on a rare outing complete with sun hats, the directly contrasting statuette of a Spartan woman wearing a single strap short dress whilst out for a run, and an intriguing bronze statuette, depicting a mime artist from contemporary Alexandria in Egypt. Named the ‘Baker Dancer’, she skilfully manages to simultaneously reveal all and nothing of her body simply through the folds and catenaries of her clothing.

‘Defining Beauty: The Body in Ancient Greek Art’ is showing at The British Museum until 5 July 2015. If you can’t make it along to the exhibition why not watch the accompanying programme on BoB: The Body Beautiful – Ancient Greeks, Good Looks and Glamour

You can find more resources in Library 1 at 391.09/391.0944 such as, ‘Goddess: the classical mode’ / Harold Koda 391.09 KOD and in Library 2 at 709.38 for Ancient Greek Art.

WSA Library, April 2015.

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