Defining Beauty

April 2, 2015 § 1 Comment

Bronze statue, around 300 BC
Bronze statue, around 300 BC

In her pioneering study, The Nude Male, published in 1978, Margaret Walters wrote about the many meanings the male nude has acquired over centuries of art history. For the Greeks of the Classical period (from the second half of the 5th century BCE) it represented strength and youthful vigour, a reversal of what the naked body had meant hitherto in other cultures of antiquity: the humiliation of men conquered in battle, as exemplified in the cruelties of an Assyrian scene shown in the British Museum’s Defining Beauty: the body in ancient Greek art.

Early Christian repudiations of the flesh persisted through a long tradition of the suffering male body, and the idealisation of male physical beauty was only revived when Renaissance humanism rediscovered Greek sculpture (famously inspiring Michelangelo). Later still, it was a template for the Nazis’ “elemental godlike” nude which Walters suggests was the central symbol in official Nazi art, the result being a plethora of vacuous, kitschy works, the best known of which seems to be a variation on the “Discus Thrower”. Defining Beauty has a Roman marble copy of the Greek original, a bronze, and I couldn’t look at it without remembering those Nazi associations. We shouldn’t underestimate how much the Greeks have formed us, how much they are the ancestors of both our European Enlightenment and history’s septic empires.

This is a stunning show. Its oldest piece is a figurine of a woman in the flat-faced Cycladic style dated from before 2500 BCE; later, it touches on birth and childhood, marriage, religion and death, through the ritual and everyday objects that accompany them; and it follows Greece’s expansion through Alexander’s conquests to the east. The foremost material is marble – many fewer bronzes have survived because of their monetary worth when melted down. Recent finds, like the bronze statue of a young athlete (c.300 BCE) fished out of the Adriatic off the Croatian island of Losinj, have a sensational effect. His painted lips and eyes underline an eerie impression that this could be a living being encased in metal. He’s one of my highlights.

My others, works that amaze me by their lasting beauty and power, include the river god Illisos, a miracle of fluidity in the reclining pose of a young male body (no head remains, alas), the goddess Iris, whose clinging draperies create movement all around her, and two panels from the Parthenon frieze, otherwise known as the Elgin Marbles. In fact all four of these are from the Parthenon.

By the start of the 5th century BCE, democracy had been established in Athens: it was the century of Sophocles and Euripides, Aeschylus, Aristophanes, Socrates and the sculptors Phidias and Myron, the century that saw the building of the Parthenon. Defining Beauty doesn’t confine itself to the 5th century. Its emphasis on themes and styles isn’t strictly chronological, but it inevitably centres on that great moment of classicism. The previous century’s black-figured vases that tell so many mythic stories are superseded in the 5th by red-figured parables and satires, athletics and orgies, the vases spooling out a kind of strip cartoon in the round, where comedy even has a part; meanwhile the hieratic Egyptian-influenced figures of the youth, the kouros, acquire a more naturalistic sense of balance and movement, and marble comes to life as recognisably human, almost breathing. The world here is truly emerging from prehistory, its inhabitants un-remote in their social skins.

This vitality of presence that bridges more than 2500 years also brings to mind the tale of Pygmalion, a sculptor who shunned women but fell in love with one of his own marble creations and brought her to life. The lesson finds a more modern echo in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, where a woman long believed dead by the husband who had mistreated her reappears as a statue and comes alive to reward his repentance and love.

We hear little of women in 5th-century Athens. Women do exist as goddesses, always lesser deities, and they feature in erotic and athletic scenes, but are subordinate to sculpture’s glorification of a perfect masculinity and the male’s centrality as erotic object. The one area where they do stand out is in the dramas; the words of Hecuba, Antigone, Medea and others still resonate today and the world they inhabited is tragically consonant with ours. Euripides mocked the physical ideal of athleticism and advocated laurels for the wise and the peacemakers. There’s maybe cause for thinking that women did gain from the glory that was 5th-century Athens, just as certain disruptive flowerings in modern history opened the space for female contestation: the English Civil War, the French Revolution, 1917, 1968. Certainly, as the classical period declined, some sculpted gods and heroes displayed less muscular forms, the body becoming more feminised.

Most exhibits in this exhibition are part of the British Museum’s collection. A few have been loaned, though nothing from Greece, which is perfectly understandable given the long-standing Greek demand that the Elgin marbles be returned. This controversy won’t go away, it represents too great a loss, is too significant in Greece’s history of being plundered. And one legal battle has been won, with a reclamation from the Getty Museum in California just a few years ago. The BM has offered to lend parts of the Parthenon frieze to the Acropolis Museum, while refusing to countenance even a partial permanent restitution. Its current stance, at least publicly, is not so much one of curatorial superiority (for the Greeks really know how to look after their antiquities), but the distributive argument that more people get to see the frieze if it stays in London. An argument with obvious weaknesses.

Seeing Defining Beauty in the semi-darkness of the Sainsbury Gallery reminded me of my last visit to Athens, in 2005, when the Acropolis Museum had newly opened to house the architectural sculptures from the Parthenon. There, and at the city’s Archaeological Museum, a place of wonders from all over ancient Greece, you see everything as it really needs to be seen, in the light.


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§ One Response to Defining Beauty

  • Denise O'Connor says:

    Thank you for this Liz! I found it inspiring – I know little or nothing about the classical age and your eloquent and informative review of exhibition has motivated me to go see it!

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