Defining Beauty: The Body in Ancient Greek Art – British Museum

On Sunday I headed to the British Museum to visit the Defining Beauty: The Body in Ancient Greek Art exhibition. I got to the front gate to find a massive queue of people waiting to have their bags checked before going into the museum, so I nipped round the back and went in through the Montague Place entrance instead. Ha.

The exhibition itself was fascinating. In an era when the definition of “beauty” is constantly being challenged and debated, it is interesting to see where our beauty ideals originally stemmed from, and to be reminded that these ideals are always subject to change.

The introduction to the exhibition examined the concept that the Greeks, unlike the Egyptians and the peoples of Mesopotamia, saw nudity as both beautiful and moral. Athens in the 5th century BC was the world’s first democracy, and there was a focus on the human self in art and thought that strongly influenced conceptions of beauty. The Greeks later influenced the Romans, who admired the Greeks and often copied them.

In early Greek society there was a strong focus on the young, athletic male as the chief personification of beauty. Three students training as sculptors in Argos represented these figures; the work of Myron, Polykleitos and Pheidias showed how beauty was exemplified by order and symmetry, balance and even the use of mathematics to calculate perfect ratios. The exhibition looked at the use of colour and other materials to adorn statues: contrary to the belief that Greek statues were stark white, many had elaborate decoration.

Greek society was unique in that its gods were portrayed in human form. This led to many representations of gods and demigods reflecting an ideal human body. Herakles was one example: the son of Zeus forced to complete twelve labours in penance after killing his family was often portrayed in Greek art and sculpture, and was seen to have an ideal physique.

What of women in all this? As in countless societies throughout history, women did not enjoy equality in Greek society and were seen as passionate and out of control: it was believed that their bodies had to be hidden as they threatened the stability of male society. Therefore, nude statues of women are rarer than those of men, and statues that do exist often show drapes covering the female form. Having said that, the drapes offered opportunities for talented sculptors to show off their abilities: the draped torsos on display were incredibly detailed and superbly carved. Sometimes statues did show off the nude female body, particularly statues of the goddess Aphrodite who was often shown as though bathing. Centuries later, Roman women were inspired by Greek statues of women to commission their own versions: on display here was a statue showing the head of a Roman woman – which was probably taken from the life – on an idealised Greek body, lending the statue a somewhat incongruous appearance. This statue was actually one of my favourites as it made the ancients appear really human – the classical equivalent of PhotoShop.

Other aspects of the exhibition looked at the representation of animals and creatures, such as the Sphinx, nymphs and satires, as well as how the portrayal of children evolved from the images of them as tiny adults to individuals with particular proportions. Famous literary and philosophical figures such as Homer and Sophokles were portrayed as similar “intellectual” types, while more individual portrayals increased in popularity, such as the detailed and memorable statue of a fisherman.

Later Greek society celebrated a wider diversity of body shapes: there were statues of the old, the young, “types” belonging to the theatre and “grotesque” characters. The influence of the Ancient Greeks was spread by Alexander the Great: it can be seen in contemporary statues of Buddha in the east, wearing typically Greek drapery. The Italian Renaissance revived interest in Greek depictions of the body, though Roman copies were by then more common than Greek originals. Two statues in particular helped to influence early modern ideas about the Greek body: the Belvedere Torso (thought to represent Herakles, or possibly Ajax) and the statue of Dionysos from the school of Pheidias.

The comprehensive exhibition is open until 5 July and is well worth a visit if you can catch it before it closes. Despite only having a layman’s knowledge of Ancient Greece I got a lot out of the exhibition – it is really well thought out and displayed.