First you see a smooth shining white back, curving down into two perfectly formed, round buttocks. As you rotate around the body, a covert face is hiding behind a fleshy shoulder, slowly the sinuous of curve of her torso and eventually a blank, sculpted face of perfect symmetry and unseeing eyes. This is the voluptuous vision gleaming in the middle of a darkened room that the visitor is first confronted with upon entering Defining Beauty at the British Museum. Aphrodite Kneeling represents Ancient Greek art at its most beautiful, its most genius. On the wall behind her, a quote from Maximus of Tyre (2nd century AD) introduces us the central message of the exhibition: “The Greek custom is to represent the gods by the most beautiful things on earth – pure material, human form, consummate art.”
The Greeks were the first culture to distinguish between nakedness (a source of shame) and nudity, a pure expression of beauty. The display of three seminal Ancient Greek male sculptures side by side reveals the different approaches by sculptors to finding this perfection. Doryphorous by Myron represented the height on the kourous tradition, the perfect male form; Discobolus, the discus thrower by Polykleitos was the epitome perfection through of balanced forces within the athletic body; and Phidias’ river god Ilissos from the Parthenon reveals a more intuitive, Hellenistic form than the previous mathematical searches for perfection, the body languid rather than tense. This constant innovation, rather than sticking to types, is what has given Greek art its longevity as an inspiration to artists.
The exhibition also challenges our notions of classical art and its inherent beauty; the art world was dismayed to discover in the last century the otherworldly pale gods, nymphs and nereids would have originally been covered in body colour and rather tacky, to our modern eyes. Renaissance revivalists and others after them rejected this historical truth for fidelity to the material of marble, but the Greeks also frequently used copper inlay to highlight nipples, lips and other body parts. The curators have used real and reconstructed coloured exhibits, including a bizarrely blingy reconstruction of the gold and silver statue of Athena which stood in the Parthenon. It’s a mark of how strongly we have all imbibed the Renaissance beauty type that these coloured sculptures are the opposite of beautiful to our eyes.
Something I always confront when gazing upon a classical sculpture is the impossibility of imagining these idealised beauties in the flesh (much as I feel when gazing upon a da Vinci Madonna) – this cultivation of a type, whilst being an utterly captivating representation of human form, has something super-human about it, even (I hesitate to say for fear of sounding exaggerative) some aspect of divinity. Being a virulent Atheist, if there’s one thing I can admire about religion of any type, it is its power as a catalyst for some of the most beautiful art, music and architecture in human history, the likes of which (in my opinion) are rarely seen in our modern secular times. In fact, the search for beauty seemed to pervade, or was found in, every aspect of Greek life, and the thematic scope of the exhibition demonstrates this well: war, sex, athletics, childhood, worship or love all provided opportunities to delve into aesthetics. There are comic moments as well – a cross-eyed Herakles, lusty goats playing sex games and mastos cups – cups used for drinking games, made in the shape of breasts; the pointed nipple made the unstable base, forcing the holder to drink his wine more quickly because he couldn’t put it down.
In fact, sexual allure is an undeniable factor in the definition of beauty, and, to our minds, in the display of nudity. However, the Greeks believed that beauty and sexuality could be divorced, and it is for this reason that nearly all the penises on the male statues in the exhibition have conspicuously small penises; it was felt (perhaps not unrealistically) that a large appendage could detract from the purity of beauty’s expression. It is then surprising to come across a tiny statuette of Ajax with an enormous erection; he is seen moments before his suicide, the erection apparently indicating his extreme emotional trauma. The Greek view of sexuality is further complicated by the blurring of gender boundaries – Hellenistic statues of Dionysus marked the beginning of the feminised, softer male body. The idea of androgynous bodies and the increasing creativity in sculpture that accompanied them sees full fruition in a 2nd century AD Roman statue of Hermaphroditis sleeping. A prone body twisting round, from the front we see a lovely woman, and from the back a man. This ingenious pose allowed the sculptor to perfectly illustrate the myth: a water nymph fell in love with the son of Hermes and Aphrodite, and upon embracing him their bodies became fused together for eternity. The exhibition demonstrates, amongst other ting, how the classical age used myths and their material realisation to understand the inexplicable in their live, such a hermaphroditism, birth and death.
On the one hand this exhibition is a survey of Greek sculpture with all the big hits, a tour through GCSE Classics, albeit with the juicy bits thrown in. On a much deeper level, it’s an exploration of nakedness and nudity which forces the viewer to question their own modern-day attitudes towards sex, nakedness and body image. To what extent do our own attitudes align with those of the Ancient Greeks? It’s an interesting comparison because, in our own way, we are as obsessed with the body beautiful as they were, except that nowadays the implications of this tend to be anorexia, the cult of the gym, bizarre and extreme fad diets, a high rate of depression in adolescents and young adults and a multi-billion cosmetics industry of false promises.
Defining Beauty is so enlivened by the interweaving of mythology and everyday life through sculpture, that I almost felt like a child reading all those stories for the first time and believing them to be true: Herakles, Dionysus, Persephone and Demeter, Hermaphroditis, Zeus and Ganymede, Oedipus and the Sphinx…..Ultimately, that’s what has made this exhibition so successful: like the spinner Ariadne who was turned into a spider by Hera, it weaves stories and pulls us in, thread by thread. With the recent news that Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, is stepping down (to universal laments and weeping), the future of exhibitions at the museum looks uncertain. MacGregor is credited with dragging the museum out of the 1970s and into the 21st century, transforming dusty halls into places of engagement and learning, a place to discover distant civilisations and art forms. What we can be sure of is that he’s leaving the British Museum with a strong legacy of exceptional exhibitions, and we can only hope that they take up his baton and carry it on.
Defining Beauty is on display until July 5th 2015