Defining Beauty: The Greek Body

Defining Beauty: Discobolos

(British Museum, London, until 5 July 2015)

I’ve been terribly lax at writing about exhibitions recently, and this post is actually far too late because the show has just closed. Nevertheless there were such beautiful things on display that I still wanted to write a little about it; and I hope some of you had the chance to see it. The theme was, very simply, the body in Greek art; but it went beyond the predictable athletic male nude, which for the Greeks, and for so many cultures since, has been the pinnacle of physical perfection. The show also looked at sculptures of the female body, whether divine or mortal; at representations of the body throughout the life cycle; and at sculpture on different scales and in different modes, from heroic to comic.

Many of the pieces on display came from the Museum itself, so they can still be tracked down by the determined; but there were some rather fabulous loans which are now winging their way back home, most notably the marvellous Belvedere Torso from the Vatican. Moreover, there was something particularly special about the theatrical mis-en-scene, which literally threw new light on some old friends.

On entering the first room of the exhibition, you were confronted by the twisting figure of the crouching Aphrodite (‘Lely’s Venus’), whose sophisticated interplay of limbs both shields and reveals, tempts and threatens. Her physical charms have been admired at length by many of the male critics writing on the show and she needs no help from me: besides, my eyes were turned elsewhere. This was because, beyond the Aphrodite, you were confronted by a remarkable trinity: three male nudes designed by three of the greatest artists of antiquity, who were all active in Athens in the 5th century BC. In pride of place in the centre was a version of one of the most recognisable sculptures in the world: Myron’s Diskobolos. Poised in the middle of a discus throw, this young athlete is frozen in a moment of complementary opposites. One arm stretches back with the discus, muscles taut; the other hangs loose across his front, offering balance. His torso twists to face the viewer; his legs are braced in profile: it is a split second of arrested motion.

Defining Beauty: Ilissos

The river god Ilissos from the Parthenon, British Museum

Beside him stands the Doryphorus or Spear Carrier of Polykleitos, Myron’s close contemporary, offering a contrast to the Diskobolos’s carefully crafted movement. This statue takes the next step by showing the potential for movement, evoking a moment of calm, a pause before the young warrior takes the next step that is already implied in the shifting balance of his legs. But all is not quite as it seems. The Diskobolos is a Roman marble copy of Myron’s lost bronze, dating from some five hundred years after the original. The Doryphorus is later still: an early 20th-century German copy made for display in Munich, which sought to combine the best parts of several surviving Roman copies. This is a recurring theme throughout the exhibition. So much of what we know about Greek art comes from Roman marble copies, for the bronze originals have been lost or melted down (most of those which do survive have been salvaged from ancient shipwrecks). And the Romans, for all their technical skill, never quite managed to grasp the fluidity and grace of Greek sculpture which, even now, conveys some suggestion of the inner sense of the divine.

That becomes apparent when you look at the third member of this little opening tableau, who genuinely is Greek. The river god Ilissos is two thousand five hundred years old and was carved under the eyes of Phedias for the Parthenon. His marble surface is scratched and weathered, and I’ve walked past him fifty, a hundred times, but I’d never really seen him until now. Elevated on his plinth and beautifully lit, he has a tantalising sense of arrested motion. It’s possible to see the play of bones and muscle beneath flesh as he pulls himself up from the water onto the bank. One side of the body bunches and tenses; the other relaxes, extends. The chest turns slightly, not to meet some mathematical dictate but because that’s how the human body moves.

Walking behind the statue – and that’s another joy of the exhibition, because you can do this – you see that even here, in a part of the sculpture never meant to be seen by human eyes, the sculptor has lavished all his care on conveying the grace of the human form. The spine curves in a sinuous line from nape of neck to hip, echoed by the sweep of thin drapery which flows down from Ilissos’ arm and seems to pool beneath his body. Stone becomes flesh; flesh, water. One of the most striking things about the sculpture is something that Phedias and his workshop could never have predicted: the way that Ilissos’s reclining pose, his bent leg and the twist of his body was echoed a thousand years later in Adam, on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, receiving the breath of life from God.

Defining Beauty: Demeter

The goddess Demeter, 360 BC, British Museum

Nowadays we think of Greek sculpture as pure white marble, for which the art historian Winckelmann is largely to blame. In fact Greek statues were almost always painted, gilded and rouged, and the show included some examples to give us a feel for how these sculptures were meant to look. Some must have been terrifying: the two-metre tall Athena Lemnia, once on the Athenian Acropolis, is shown here in a cast painted head to toe in gold, silver and copper. In the inner shrine of a temple, lit only by candlelight, grimly staring down at the helmet in her hand, she must have been awe-inspiring, even if she loses some of her grandeur under electric lights. And the same went for the paint. It’s very garish to modern eyes, but you have to think of these statues in darkened rooms lit by flickering lamps, and suddenly you begin to understand that the paint could have taken on the seductive appearance of flesh. Think of the stories of Pygmalion, or the unfortunate young man of Knidos.

And it’s not just the Greek body that we encountered here: the exhibition gave due consideration to the ‘other’ in Greek art: monsters, Amazons, and Persians (whose taste for wearing trousers, according to the Greeks, was a sign of ridiculous effeminacy. For their own part, the Persians were baffled by a culture in which men spent so much time running around without any clothes on). Then the show juxtaposed verisimilitude and deliberate distortion: placing striking (Roman copies of) portrait heads of philosophers, all frowns and wrinkles, alongside caricatured terracotta statuettes of comic actors. And it brought the story to an end with a brief look at how the Greek body exerted an enduring influence in the history of art.

Here was another compelling trio to finish things off. Another of the Parthenon sculptures was displayed alongside the Roman Belvedere Torso: a tightly-knotted twist of truncated muscle, which already moves beyond the grace of the Greek form into a visual language of body-builder heroics. The Torso is a superb piece of sculpture in its own right of course; but it’s particularly important here because it forms the bridge between the physical form of the Greek original (little known in Western Europe until the 18th and 19th centuries) and that of the greatest Renaissance celebration of the human form: Michelangelo’s Adam. The two sculptures were displayed alongside the preparatory red chalk drawing for Adam, which is one of Michelangelo’s most impressive surviving drawings (and is also in the British Museum). I’m not going to rhapsodise over this sheet, although my friends will know that I’m quite fond of it; but suffice to say that, in its shimmering sense of potential, Michelangelo’s nude closes the circle that began in the first room with Ilissos.

Defining Beauty: Michelangelo’s Adam

Michelangelo, Study for the figure of Adam on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, c. 1511, British Museum

There are just two other sculptures I want to focus on in detail: one which I knew I’d enjoy because I’d seen it before; and one which was a surprise highlight. The first was the Borghese Hermaphrodite, the great joyful joke of ancient art, which despite its lurid reputation is a surprisingly elegant and understated sculpture. It teases, rather than shocks: the swell of the breast, serpentine curve of the hip, and richly-coiffed head giving way on the far side to male genitalia (it’s worth hanging around in this section for a while to watch the reactions of those who haven’t seen the statue before). And yet the thing that sticks in the mind is the drapery. This languorous figure has kicked off its sheets, but on the ‘male’ side of the sculpture you see that the linen is still tangled sumptuously around its lower leg. One foot strains idly to free itself, in a superb rendition of flesh and fabric. Quite apart from its tantalising playfulness, it is a wonderful work of art; and, as I said, I knew that was going to amuse me.

As for the surprise… That was a tiny terracotta figurine of a woman. Trying to find images of real women from the ancient world (at least prior to Roman frescoes) is hard work. Respectable women were supposed to keep out of sight; and that went for statues too. Yet here, in a little case, were a few small terracottas of women chastely swathed in mantles which, nevertheless, suggest the volume of the form beneath. One wears a rather rakish sun-hat; others pose slightly; one, a dancing girl, twists exotically to show off her physique beneath her veils… but the one who caught my eye is bareheaded, her hair knotted at the nape of her neck. She stands with hands clasped, her head bowed and cocked slightly to one side. The features are too small to have a clear idea of her expression, but you get the feeling she might be frowning. She’s staring off somewhere, thinking hard. And it was that quality of self-containment, her air of silence, which appealed to me so strongly. I ended up having a very odd emotional connection to this little figure: I went to the exhibition three times in the end; and each time, after paying my respects to Ilissos, I found myself drawn straight to her.

It was an opportunity to see some familiar sculptures in a new context, and to understand them as part of a wider whole, which isn’t always available when they stand in splendid isolation in the sculpture galleries. Add in the loans, both of sculptures and casts, and you had an exhibition which was well worth seeing. If it has one abiding legacy it’s probably going to be a new appreciation for Ilissos, whom I suspect will be my first port of call on any visit to the Parthenon Galleries from now on.

3 thoughts on “Defining Beauty: The Greek Body

  1. The Idle Woman says:

    Except sadly, as I said at the beginning, the exhibition closed on the 5th. Mea culpa for having been distracted by other things over the last few weeks. However, as I said, many of the objects are available to see on a daily basis at the BM itself. Go along on a Friday night when it's open late and spend some time wandering around the galleries – it's quite amazing how much wonderful stuff there is that people rush past on their way to the Rosetta Stone. And I know an excellent guide if you want one…

  2. Miriam says:

    One important and crucial aspect of the history of the Roman copies which were included in the exhibition was totally neglected, and for me it distorted how we were encouraged to view them. This is the fact that significant parts of the statues were 'restored' in the eighteenth-century and we were seeing objects which were as much interpretations by their restorers as by early Roman craftsmen. The Belvedere Torso was remarkable as an unrestored fragment and as such was worthy to be placed alongside an original Parthenon figure. It is worth noting that Canova refused to restore Elgin's marbles, recognising that the aesthetic tide had turned. I feel that the public are quite capable of understanding the complexity of the history attached to the objects on display, and thus this omission was somewhat disingenuous on the part of the exhibition organisers.

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