Defining Beauty: The Body in Ancient Greek Art
The British Museum
26 March – 5 July 2015
Early on in the British Museum’s Defining Beauty exhibition, we meet a series of mannequin-like kouroi (youths) from the 6th century BC, all wearing “archaic” smiles. Their mathematically calculated proportions, fixed gaze and regimented stance, influenced by Egyptian sculpture, appear otherworldly. They look like something you might think of when asked to think about antiquity. But towards the end of the 6th century, Greek kouroi lost this “permanent smile of self-satisfaction” and became more naturalistic. They started to smile like humans. The exhibition charts the evolving ideas of beauty within Greek art, as sculptors moved from creating stiff, unreal kouroi to attempting to depict the Platonic Form of beauty. It is specifically designed so as to frame what it describes as “encounters” with sculptures that are often incredibly life-like. To do so, the scale of the museum’s Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery, which opened in March 2014, is used to full effect. Some exhibits are raised on stands at shoulder height, forcing the spectator to gaze upwards, while the biggest statues are set against pleated backdrops of rich blue and red, which give the impression of closed stage curtains, or the drapes of a boudoir. Spotlit from above, their huge bodies cast hulking shadows on the floor beside them. Elsewhere, the lighting is kept to a minimum so that the statues are clearly visible from a distance—the marble copy of Polykleitos’ (fl. 450–420 BC) 5th century BC wounded Amazon, for instance, can be seen from the opposite end of the gallery.
Throughout the exhibition, the divisions between gender roles in Greek society are apparent. For men, the cultivation of an attractive, healthy, physical form was a civic duty, directly linked to military fitness and athletic honour. In a section entitled “The Ideal Body”, we meet a grouping of three naked, muscular male statues indicative of the sought-after Greek look. The copies of Diskobolos by Myron (fl. 470–440 BC) and Polykleitos’ Doryphoros, along with the original Ilissos, taken from the west pediment of the Parthenon and sculpted by Pheidias (fl. c. 490–430 BC), throw impressive shadows. As Ian Jenkins, exhibition curator, comments in a British Museum blog post, “the Greek body beautiful was a moral condition and one to which only the Greeks among the peoples of the ancient world were attached”. Greek warriors are depicted nude and victorious, unlike, for example, the Assyrians, who portrayed their enemies in defeat as naked, and thus submissive.
Marble statue of a naked Aphrodite crouching at her bath
By contrast, women, be they gods or mortals, are veiled with diaphanous cloths, or even, in the case of one marble statue of a sea nymph, salt spray and sea breezes – all of which reveal the contours of the body without actually revealing it. This is seduction carried out within strict parameters. Women’s bodies, the exhibition notes, had to be covered up and controlled within Greek public life, so as not to risk the release of some chaotic force of nature. Female nudity was abnormal outside of cult and the sex industry, states Jenkins in the comprehensive exhibition catalogue: “When it occurs in Greek art, it is almost always sexually charged.” Openly naked women are whores or monsters or maenads, not respectable wives. The goddess Aphrodite is an exception—she is naked, but often crouching or preparing to bathe. Her nakedness seems to be seen only when she appears to be caught unawares, placing the viewer firmly in the role of voyeur.
The exhibition culminates in the unprecedented combination of two key examples of what has, at various points in time, constituted representations of “ideal beauty”: Pheidias’ marble statue of Dionysos, taken from the east pediment of the Parthenon, and the Belvedere Torso, named after the Vatican Palace courtyard in which it was displayed. When Lord Elgin brought the Parthenon sculptures back from Athens in the early 1800s, a genteel Britain was initially unaccustomed to the realism portrayed in these sculptures. The statue of Dionysos reclines, legs stretched out and suspended in mid-air, in a position that seemed “alarmingly naturalistic” to Londoners. In British Museum director Neil MacGregor’s introduction to the catalogue, he describes the shock experienced by art connoisseurs, used to relatively pristine Roman copies, upon seeing the Greek originals: “Battered, stained and with many parts missing, the sculptures from Athens were not to everybody’s taste.” Yet Britain quickly took on the mantle of Greek art, fusing these new ideals with its own traditions so completely that the Parthenon horsemen became national icons. “Greek naturalist sculpture, and especially the Parthenon sculptures, provoked in nineteenth-century British and French societies a radical re-appraisal of their own values and national identities,” explains Leoussi.
Figure of Dionysos from the east pediment of the Parthenon
In spite of the remarkable efforts of the British Museum to preserve the Parthenon sculptures as a global resource, it is difficult to ignore the ongoing debate around where the sculptures should be housed, London or Athens. In the catalogue, Matthew Bell, Professor of German and Comparative Literature at King’s College London, describes the playwright Friedrich Schiller’s (1759 – 1805) “moral and aesthetic outrage” at the plundering of Greece and Italy by British gentry and the French military. “What made the situation even worse was that the treasures were often not enjoyed. Their British owners seemed more interested in possessing than appreciating them,” notes Bell. In the exhibition at least, the sculptures can be publically appreciated in what the British Museum describes as “the context of world history”, but there seems little reason why they could not be viewed similarly in Greece.
The Torso, meanwhile, is a 1st century BC copy of a Greek bronze. It is lacking, obviously enough, a head, arms and legs, and thus loses much of its potential for expression and defining characteristics. Scholars have surmised that the figure may be Herakles, or Ajax, contemplating suicide after losing Achilles’ armour to Odysseus. The Italian Renaissance sculptor Michelangelo, an admirer of the Torso, even “declined the suggestion that he restore [it]”, says MacGregor, because it was so close to perfection. However, what is most notable about the juxtaposition of the two pieces is the difference in texture and quality of the surviving marble: the Torso looks smooth and supple still, while the surface of Dionysos is eroded, and scarred with lesions. To those looking at it in the present day, the statue is beautiful both because of the gain registered in its survival, and the loss evoked by its imperfection.
In bringing together two paragons of beauty that are now physically flawed, the final room of the exhibition sums up this state of absence. Though the possibility of new discoveries remains, there is much that has been lost in the intervening centuries which can simply never be recovered. In particular, countless bronze statues no longer survive because they became more valuable as scrap metal rather than art in late antiquity. As Bell states, “since the early seventeenth century, the Belvedere Torso had been seen as a melancholy symbol of the passing of ancient greatness, and indeed the transience of all human things.” Romanticising the fact that these beaten up sculptures are not how they appeared to the Greeks is surely rooted in the tension that lies at the heart of any encounter with classical antiquity—the chasm that lies between the present and the past is emphasised when we look at these worn out bodies. Indeed, a gigantic plaster cast of Athena Lemnia in gilded technicolour, reconstructed from Roman copies of a bronze Greek original and displayed earlier on, is impressive, but feels a little too perfect to provoke the kind of visceral response the exhibition seems to be driving at. Defining Beauty succeeds in showing the spectator not what it was like to live when the sculptures were new, but how different, how alien the ancient Greeks actually were—although Dionysos may look more realistic, the figure is no less mysterious than the kouroi. An encounter with these exquisitely constructed human forms, spoiled but not ruined by time, is the most lucid expression of this difference.
Jenny Messenger  read Classics at Oxford and Bristol. She is a financial journalist based in London.