Of Gods & Mortals
The Body Beautiful in Ancient Greece
The British Museum touring exhibition The Body Beautiful in Ancient Greece, currently at Bendigo Art Gallery (until 9 November, 2014), aims to give viewers an insight into the aesthetic and cultural values that coursed through this most deeply influential and historically resonant civilisation.
Dr. Ian Jenkins, senior curator of the ancient Greek collection at the British Museum, with assistant curator Victoria Turner, have selected over 100 items from the collection, spanning over two millennia. These explore aspects of the human form that are expressive the Greek ideal, and the understanding that physical beauty, vigour, and strength could also reflect moral character, virtue, rectitude, and a sense of civic responsibility and purpose. For the upper classes in ancient Greece, the achievement of arete or ‘excellence’ was closely aligned to notions of honour, and loyalty to the polis, or city. Physical fitness was an important aspect of this male-dominated culture whereby the tradition of athletic competitions denoted a more general preparedness for war as soldier-citizens. Independent city-states jostled for power, and were often in conflict with one another, but also sought alliances against invaders such as the Persians.
The idea of manly virtue in the sixth century BC was expressed in the figure of the kouros, or ‘young man’. Similar in style to statues produced by the Egyptians, with whom the Greeks had contact from at least the time of Pharaoh Psamtik I, this sculptural template incorporated the essential elements for successful manhood: even features, long groomed hair, broad shoulders, well-developed muscles, wasp waist, flat stomach, and a clear division of torso and pelvis. These sculptures were often used as grave markers to represent the deceased, and to indicate that, in life, they were well regarded. Pentelic Marble Grave Relief (4th century BC), shows a comely youth, naked but for a cloak artfully draped over his arm and shoulder. He holds a strigil (scraper), a small metal tool used to scrape dirt and sweat from the body, suggesting he was an athlete. Special honour was accorded to those who had met the ‘beautiful death’ (kalos thanatos) on the field of battle.
Carved towards the end of the archaic period, Parian Marble Statue of a Boy (The Strangford Apollo) (c. 490 BC) demonstrates the critical difference between Pharaonic and ancient Greek statuary; the Greeks depicted their kouroi nude, thus adapting the Egyptian style to better suit their own traditions. Although public nudity was not common, particularly in mixed company, in the pictorial language of Greek art gods, heroes, warriors and athletes are depicted unclothed to emphasise their resplendence. Some statues adopt a more demure downward glance, demonstrating the attribute of aidos (‘natural modesty’) as a response to admiration. The statue is named after the Anglo-Irish diplomat Percy Smythe, 6th Viscount Strangford and Baron Penshurst (1780-1855). He served as ambassador to the Sublime Porte (a metonym for the government of the Ottoman Empire) in 1820, which allowed him to collect various examples of Greek sculpture, including this piece formerly in Strangford’s collection.
With the exception of sex workers, slaves, certain fertility cult manifestations, and the demigod race of nymphs, female nudity was largely taboo in ancient Greek art. The female equivalent of the kouros, the kore, ‘young girl’ or maiden, wears layers of drapery and has an elaborate braided hairstyle reflecting a life lived in relative seclusion, as seen in the partial work Marble Sculpture of a Girl (kore) (100-30 BC). Marble Gravestone (c. 330-317 BC), of a lovely young girl holding a mirror, would have been viewed as particularly tragic. Girls who died unmarried were seen as especially pitiable, and symbolic efforts were made in the funerary ritual and grave monuments to compensate them for this ‘unnatural’ end; a denial of their anticipated role as wife, mother, and mistress of a household. Athena (goddess of Wisdom), Nike (goddess of Victory), Hera (wife of Zeus) and Eos (goddess of the Dawn) are also depicted clothed in the context of these various objects.
The artistic convention to eschew female nudity in Greek art of this period did not apply to Aphrodite (goddess of Love), however. The prolific sculptor Praxiteles of Athens, whom Pliny the Elder (Gaius Plinius Secundus) (23-79 AD), tells us was working at the time of the 104th Olympiad (c. 375 BC) is responsible for the most famous representation, the full-height Aphrodite of Knidos. Thought to be either a son or nephew of the sculptor Kephisodotos the Elder (fl. 400-c. 360 BC), Praxiteles is also believed to have been a lover of the famous courtesan (hetaira) Phryne of Thespiae, the likely model for the statue. Pliny contends that Praxiteles made two statues of the goddess: one which was clothed and was purchased by the island people of Kos, the other – of infinite acclaim and notoriety – was installed at a temple in the city of Knidos (in southwest Turkey) around 360 BC.
Executed originally in marble and reputed to have been extraordinarily lifelike, Aphrodite was depicted in the act of discarding her robe in preparation for her ritual bath; a work designed to inspire both religious awe and ecstatic desire in equal measure. An epigram attributed to Plato, and preserved in the Greek Anthology (Anthologia Graeca), has the goddess visiting her own statue, such was its fame,
Paphian Cytherca [Aphrodite] came through the waves to Cnidus, desiring to look upon her own image. Once she had viewed it from all angles in its open shrine, She cried, ‘Wherever did Praxiteles see me naked? (Vol. V, Book 16.160).
An anonymous wit has her declaring, “Paris, Anchises, and Adonis saw me naked. Those are all I know of, but how did Praxiteles contrive it?” (Vol. V, Book 16.168).
The Aphrodite of Knidos inspired numerous copies, both in its own time and well into the Roman period, such as the examples included here, Marble Bust of Aphrodite, and Parian Marble Statue of Aphrodite. Bronze Figure of Aphrodite (200-100 BC), shows the later development of a variety of poses for the bathing ritual: the goddess, poised on one foot, is removing her sandal. In the much smaller work, Terracotta Group of Aphrodite and Eros (300-100 BC), the goddess-as-mother is more conventionally clothed in a long tunic.
Mesomedes of Crete, the Roman-era Greek lyric poet and composer of the early second century AD, has an epigram recorded in the Greek Anthology on the curious nature of the Sphinx, who is said to have guarded the entrance to the Greek city of Thebes,
A creeping, flying, walking maiden; a lioness lifting up feet not her own as she ran; she was a woman winged in front, in the middle a roaring lioness, and behind a curling snake. She ran away neither making a trail nor as a woman, nor either bird or beast in her whole body; for she seemed to be a maiden without feet, and the roaring beast had no head. She had an irregularly mixed nature, made up of imperfect and perfect parts. (Vol. V, Book 14.63).
Marble Sphinx, probably a support for a table (120-140 AD), shows the enduring popularity of this mythic creature whose peculiar and composite status – and her reputed temper – challenged the boundaries of gender. Associated with the legend of Oedipus, and the riddles she put to him, the Sphinx was another common motif for grave markers, as a guardian of the tomb.
The exhibition’s central work, Marble Statue of a Discus Thrower (Diskobólos) (2nd century, AD), is displayed in a designated space separate from the other objects. It is one of a number of copies of a lost bronze original (c. 450-440 BC) made by the much-admired sculptor Myron of Eleutherae (fl. 480-440 BC) in the middle of the fifth century BC. Myron’s work is mentioned both by Pliny the Elder in his Natural History (Naturalis Historia) (c. 77-79 AD) and by Lucian of Samosata (c. 125-after 180 AD) in his Philopseudes (c. 150 AD). Myron is recorded as having produced seven statues of athletes that stood in the sanctuary at Olympia, comprising the Diskobólos, as a generic representation, and six likenesses of victors in the Games. Ironically, given the athletic ideal of physical proportion and rhythmos (harmony and balance) the sculpture embodies, the head is not original, and has been incorrectly restored. Although it is certainly ancient, the head not from this statue and looks down, instead of back towards the clasped discus poised for release.
This particular Diskobólos was excavated from the Villa Adriana, built for the Roman Emperor Hadrian (76-138 AD) at Tivoli, in 1790. It was purchased at a public auction in Rome by the art dealer and cicerone Thomas Jenkins (c.1722-98) in 1792. He then sold the sculpture for £400 (approximately £42,500 today) the same year to his long-term client, the wealthy Lancashire Catholic antiquary and collector Charles Townley (or Towneley) (1737-1805), after whom it is sometimes named. Townley amassed an impressive collection of Graeco-Roman sculptures and other artefacts such as terracottas, smaller bronze vessels and objects, coins and intaglios from his extensive travels over the course of three Grand Tours. These he displayed within his house at 7 Park Street, Westminster, and encouraged visitors to view the collection. It soon became one of the significant sights of London, depicted in the painting Charles Townley and Friends in His Library at Park Street, Westminster (1782-92) by Johann Zoffany, RA (1733-1810). Now on display at his former family seat of Towneley Hall in Burnley, the work shows the collector and three fellow connoisseurs; palaeographer Thomas Astle (1735-1803), politician Hon. Charles Francis Greville (1749-1809), and Pierre-François Hugues (1719-1805), the self-styled ‘Baron d’Hancarville’. They are surrounded by an imaginary arrangement of Townley’s major sculptural acquisitions, including the Diskobólos, which Townley later asked Zoffany to add to the grouping.
Townley was made a trustee of the British Museum in 1791, and the institution bought the bulk of ‘Townley’s marbles’ and larger bronzes in July, 1805, followed by the smaller antiquities in 1814. A documentary presentation, The Discus Thrower (26 mins), features commentary from Ian Jenkins and fellow British Museum staff Dr. Judith Swaddling (curator of Etruscan and other Antiquities from pre-Roman Italy), and Karen Birkhoelzer (senior conservator). Contemporary English sculptor Marcus Cornish and artist Clara Drummond from the Prince’s Drawing School, London, provide some commentary on the physical process of working with marble, and the Diskobólos as subject for drawing students, respectively. A practical demonstration of stance, posture and release is provided by Lawrence Okoye, the current British record holder in the discus event, and his then coach John Hillier. A Red-figured drinking cup (kylix) attributed to Pheidippose (c. 500 BC) depicts a number of athletes, including a discus thrower, who is seen grappling with the heavy flattened sphere as he prepares to throw.
The Body Beautiful in Ancient Greece, Bendigo Art Gallery, 42 View Street, Bendigo, (VIC) until 9 November – bendigoartgallery.com.au
All works © The Trustees of the British Museum – britishmuseum.org
Inga Walton is a writer and arts consultant based in Melbourne who contributes to numerous Australian and international publications. She has submitted copy, of an inceasingly verbose nature, to Trouble since 2008. She is under the impression that readers are not morons with a short attention span, and would like to know lots of things.