The body beautiful in ancient Greece

Art Art & Lit

As I stumble out of the urban swirl, through the usual madding crowds of tourists, into the British Museum’s new exhibition, I am met with a sudden and imposing sense of serenity and beauty. Three visions of the classical Greek ideal of the human form stand to face me – a Roman copy of a statue by the great Phidias, the infamous marble Discobolos of Myron, and the Doryphoros of Polykleitos. Despite their elegant pose and their quasi-Platonic physical perfection, despite the colours they have lost (most statues would have had at least some paint), they live and breathe before me – I find myself slightly disconcerted by the vacant, hollow gaze emanating from such vital forms. As I soon realise, this exhibition has a profound central concern, namely the unique and uniquely influential way in which the Greeks conceptualised the human form, and how that ideal evolved through the centuries.

PHOTO/wikipedia
PHOTO/wikipedia

The first thing that strikes me, as I amble further through in amazement, is the way in which Greek society and art of the Classical period were so at home with nudity, at least of the male form. As I behold the juxtaposition of powerful nude Classical sculptures with reliefs from Assyria and elsewhere in the Middle East, where nakedness marks humiliation, failure or defeat, used in the depiction of victims and vanquished foes, the thought crosses my mind that there has been no other culture of such sophistication that has so completely banished the Edenic shame which has haunted us for so long, and perhaps haunts us still today. For us, nudity is usually the province of nudists and free lovers, of pornography and of our most intimate moments – we can scarcely imagine this tranquil, desexualised concept of nudity, this objective viewing of the naked form. As the curator has written: “the Greeks were the first to make the moral distinction between the nude and the naked body,” and it is perhaps a distinction that our highly sexualised culture has blurred.

PHOTO/wikipedia
PHOTO/wikipedia

For all that, as I move into the next section, devoted to the female form, I am met with a much more restrained artistic attitude, perhaps unsurprisingly given the unequal rights of women in ancient Greece, especially in Athens. The statues of (mortal) women shown are always covered up, yet they are often depicted in a much more sexual way than the male figures, as the sculptors have wrapped them up tightly in sexualising drapery. The Greeks’ complex relationship with female nudity is palpable, and seems even more manifest in their willingness to build sculptures of naked gods – one of the most striking pieces in the exhibition is a 4th century statue of Aphrodite (also known as the Lely Venus), bending over and ineffectually trying to cover herself with her hands. Looking at it seems an almost deliberately disquieting experience – I feel as if I am being forced into the role of an intrusive voyeur, but at the same time the statue seems, especially given the associations of Aphrodite, to convey a highly self-conscious sexuality. An intriguing (albeit slightly disturbing) story told by Lucian (writing much later) sheds a strange light on all of this: apparently an Athenian sailor broke into the temple of Aphrodite in Cnidos, and was so entranced by the statue of her (made by Praxiteles, ca. 360 BC, famous for its aesthetic perfection) that he tried to have sex with her (leaving a stain on her leg), and ended up killing himself. A dark vision indeed of the phantom beauty of art and its destructive power.

I feel as if I am being forced into the role of an intrusive voyeur

PHOTO/Marie-Lan Nguyen
PHOTO/Marie-Lan Nguyen

As I move on, there follows a series of pieces which have interesting implications for Greek thought about gender and sexuality in a wider sense. Images of bearded satyrs with absurdly enormous erect penises and grinning features, frolicking with each other on red figure vases (a far cry from the demure elegance of Keats’ Grecian urn) seem almost to parody the excesses of male sexuality; a statue of a seemingly female corpse on a slab of rock is revealed, when the viewer reaches the other side, to have male genitalia (this is the famous Borghese Hermaphroditus, a Roman copy of the Greek original). The sculptor of the latter seems to be playing significantly with the viewer’s expectations; when I see it, I think of the elaborate and bizarre myth unfolded in Plato’s Symposium by Aristophanes about three sexes of spherical double-humans (male-male, female-female, and male-female) who dared to attack the Gods and were punished with division in two, to which Aristophanes attributes the pangs of romantic love. Clearly the idea of the hermaphrodite was prominent in Greek thought, and indeed just as Plato’s Aristophanes uses it to explain the varieties of human sexual desire, so the sculptor of the Borghese Hermaphroditus almost seems to highlight the arbitrariness of sex and gender – there seems, even in a society with fairly clearly delineated gender roles, prejudices, and discrimination, to have been some reflection of such ideas going on, though perhaps this intuition I feel is merely my projection.

Less obviously bound into the structure of the exhibition, but implicit throughout, is a sense of the historical development of the Greek vision. Although, of course, it dwells on the idealised classical form which most of us think of when thinking about Greek art, we are given glimpses, however fleeting, of the full scope of its history. A figurine from the 8th century BC, seemingly of the hero Ajax about to kill himself, is the most alien item on display: two to three inches tall, with a vague sense of a nose and chin, a slender, straight torso, bendy spaghetti-like limbs, a peculiarly erect penis, and some sort of beret-esque headgear, it presents a potent contrast in its primitiveness to the immensely sophisticated visual language that had emerged little more than two centuries later. Nearby, an abstractly geometric female figure – reminiscent of (perhaps an influence on) works by Giacometti and Henry Moore – from 2700-2500BC also stands out in its strangeness. Black figure vases (6th century BC) show the Oriental, solemn and godlike figures that preceded the Classical vision, picked out in eerie negative; a few busts of Greek thinkers display the Alexandrian development of interest in individual features and expressions far beyond the Classical ideal type. These glimpses of the pre- and post-classical are compelling, and I find myself almost more fascinated by the alien and sharply geometric features of the pre-Classical than by the ‘humanist’ figures of the Classical period.

solemn and godlike figures…picked out in eerie negative

PHOTO/ Jakob Bodagard
PHOTO/ Jakob Bodagard

At last, I walk into a pleasantly understated room that has chosen a few of the most striking echoes of the Greek concept of the human body. Astonishingly, I am confronted with a statue of a Gandhara Buddha (1st-2nd century AD) which looks conspicuously Greek, not only in the features, but also in the flowing, carefully arranged drapery: Alexander the Great reached India, after all, and it is from this interaction that figural depictions of the Buddha seem to have emerged. There could not have been a more powerful reminder of the invisible threads that bind the cultures of our world together, and of the fact that no culture ever can, or will, exist in a vacuum.Beside this, two colossal but fragmented statues face each other – a statue of Dionysus with worn-away features and stumps for hands opposite the ‘Belvedere Torso’, a muscular figure seated on a rock, headless and legless. In these sculptures, despite (perhaps because of) their anonymous dilapidation, Michelangelo (together with other figures of the Italian Renaissance and many others) sought a Greek ideal of physical beauty and perfection to aspire to: the statue of Dionysus contributed to his own sculptures (perhaps especially the prisoners emerging from the rock, as the Dionysus sculpture was itself carved from a huge rock), and he seems to have used the Belvedere Torso for his sketches for the Creazione di Adamo (The Creation of Adam). And so I float out of this exhibition, awash with both a sense of wonder at the aesthetic and humanist revolution the Greeks had wrought and its reverberations through time, and a sense of sorrow for what little remains; for just a moment, I feel the fingers of the rosy Greek artistic and humanist dawn brush against me.