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.

Sculpture Victorious – Tate Britain

During my day out at Tate Britain, I visited a great many exhibitions including Sculpture Victorious. This exhibition looks at the development of the art form during the Victorian era. Victoria and Albert encouraged and commissioned work, as did the state, and this helped to encourage a “golden age” of sculpture.

The first section explores images of Queen Victoria herself, from Francis Chantrey’s 1839 young and sensual marble bust to Alfred Gilbert’s 1887-9 marble bust and Edward Onslow Ford’s 1897 bronze bust, made only a few years before Victoria died. Her image was familiar to all her subjects as it was dispersed throughout the country on cameos, medals and coins – some of which are displayed here, including Canadian and Indian coins, a Crimea medal and a Great Exhibition medal – as well as large and small busts. The item I found particularly interesting was Benjamin Cheverton’s 1842 bust, a copy of Chantrey’s made using Cheverton’s ingenious “reducing machine”.

The nineteenth century saw a growth of interest in Britain’s history, particularly its medieval past. This was evident in the Houses of Parliament, designed in a Gothic style, and the fascination with the “Age of Chivalry” and church history. The House of Lords was decorated with models of the Magna Carta barons by James Sherwood Westmacott, including the Earl of Winchester (d. 1219), whose model has been loaned to this exhibition. Edmund Cotterill’s Eglinton Trophy is a beautiful and intricate example of medieval-inspired design, while many medieval tombs were conserved and their casts displayed at the Crystal Palace, including that of Eleanor of Aquitaine.

The classical world also inspired the Victorians, particularly the Parthenon marbles, casts and miniatures of which were sold and toured the country. Hamo Thornycroft’s bronze sculpture of Teucer (1881), a Greek archer named in the Iliad, was well received while John Gibson, a leading British neoclassicist, created Hylas surprised by the Naiades (1826-c.36) in marble. The Devonshire Parure (1856), a glorious collection of jewels, was inspired by classical style while Frederic Leighton’s bronze An Athlete Wrestling with a Python (1877) is particularly impressive.

The Great Exhibition showcased fine examples of sculpture from Britain and abroad. Minto & Co.’s Peacock (1873) and Elephant (1889) are attractive and bright; made of lead and tin-glazed earthenware, they exemplify the link between sculpture and manufacturing. Mid-19th century ivory sculptures from Barhampur in India are ornate and beautiful, while Thomas Wilkinson Wallis’s Partridges and Ivy (1871), made of limewood, is breathtakingly delicate and stunning. Sculptures of a Greek slave and an American slave helped to fuel the anti-slavery campaign. I was particularly impressed by Raffaele Monti’s Veiled Vestal (1847), a marble sculpture with remarkably realistic drapes veiling a young woman’s face.

The Victorian era saw the construction of more public statues than any other, designed largely for commemorative purposes. Still famous to this day is Alfred Gilbert’s 1893 Shaftesbury monument, a memorial to Lord Shaftesbury, most commonly known as the Statue of Eros in Piccadilly Circus. A statue of King Alfred by Hamo Thornycroft was erected in Winchester in 1901, accompanied by a carefully choreographed unveiling, and Alfred Stevens won the Wellington Commission to create a memorial to the Duke of Wellington in St Paul’s Cathedral.

The final section of the exhibition looks at individual craftsmanship, with examples including A Royal Game (1906-11) by William Reynolds-Stephens, an impressive piece of bronze, wood and stone showing Elizabeth I and Philip II of Spain playing chess. Another piece that caught my eye was Perseus and the Graiae (1877-88) by Edward Burne-Jones.

I have an interest in the Victorian period and this exhibition allowed me to learn about an area of Victorian art that I hadn’t really thought about before. Definitely recommended.

The Human Factor: The Figure in Contemporary Sculpture – Hayward Gallery

When I came out of the Tate Modern, I decided that as it was such a nice day I would walk along the Thames Path to the Southbank Centre. After a frozen yogurt from the pink Snog bus, I headed into the Hayward Gallery to see The Human Factor: The Figure in Contemporary Sculpture.

In general, I find that I tend to prefer older art (from the nineteenth century and earlier) to modern paintings and the like. However, I feel rather differently about sculpture. In my (completely uneducated) opinion, it gets a bit dull looking at yet another white marble figure, so the way in which modern sculptors use different materials to create imaginative and radical art is much more appealing to me. For this reason, I was looking forward to The Human Factor, which brings together new work from 25 international artists who use the human form in new and exciting ways.

There was an incredible array of sculpture on display, from Thomas Schütte Krieger’s huge statues, made of wood which has been coloured and oiled, battle scarred and contorted, to Paloma Varga Weisz’s double-headed “Falling Woman”. Cathy Wilkes’ untitled sculpture of 2011 shows a disturbing tableau of contorted figures surrounded by battle equipment, while Maurizio Cattelan has created a frighteningly lifelike representation of John F. Kennedy in his coffin. Figures have been cast from wax, formed from mannequins with added material, sculpted from bronze and given a beehive for a head (the latter is Pierre Huyghe’s 2012 creation – the first and, probably, only time I will ever see a sign warning that “The following exhibition contains live bees”). Jeff Hoons’ “Bear and Policeman” of 1988 shows a giant teddy bear towering over a rotund policeman, while Martin Honert’s unsettling sculpture of his former English teacher recreates the shadows of the black and white photo from which the image was taken. Other sculptures evoke living statues, of the kind you see in Covent Garden surrounded by tourists – it is surreal to view statues of people pretending to be statues. Mark Wallinger’s “Ecce Homo” of 1999 displays a man with a shorn head and a crown of thorns – an allegory of persecution.

Even with the breadth of sculpture on offer, I still managed to find favourites. One, entitled “Tell my mother not to worry”, is a marble sculpture of the artist’s four-year-old daughter disguised as a ghost. This is achieved by the sculpting of a white sheet which trails along the ground, with extremely realistic folds; it suggests that there really is something underneath.

This piece was by Ryan Gander, as was another of my favourites, a “re-imagining” of Degas’ Little Dancer. You see an empty plinth ahead, then turn to the right to see the dancer on tiptoe, staring out of the window. The sculpture is easily recognisable as the Degas character, and I liked the attempt to suggest that she had her own autonomy and views.

My final favourite piece probably made the strongest impact on me. Located in a small room by itself, Maurizio Cattelan’s “Him” is a kneeling schoolboy figure with his back to the entrance, hands clasped in an attitude of prayer. As you approach and turn to see the boy’s face, however, you see he is not a boy at all, but Hitler. This discovery raises more questions – what is Hitler praying for? Is he seeking forgiveness for his past actions? Or is he asking for help to continue his evil plans?

I loved this exhibition and I think there is something for everyone here. The Hayward Gallery always tries to show something different; it doesn’t always succeed, but it has done so here.

This is Kev. He is at the entrance to the Hayward Gallery and his clothes are changed every day of the exhibition!

Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art

Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art

Located near Highbury and Islington Station, north London, the Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art is home to a wide variety of 20th century Italian artworks. It opened in 1998 with a permanent collection formerly belonging to Eric Estorick (1913-93), an American sociologist and writer. There is also a rolling programme of temporary exhibitions. The space is open Wednesday to Sunday, and it costs £5 to enter (£3.50 for concessions and £2.50 for National Art Pass holders).

The building is quite small so it didn’t take me long to look around. To be honest the permanent collection didn’t grab me as much as I’d hoped, but I found a few pictures that I liked.

Estorick permanent collection
Estorick permanent collection

The temporary exhibition when I visited was Giorgio de Chirico: Myth and Mystery. The artist is best known for his paintings, but here his sculptures are on display. I must admit I’d never heard of him, but I did like his modern, occasionally creepy sculptures.

Giorgio de Chirico sculpture
Giorgio de Chirico sculpture

The Estorick should appeal to those interested in modern and/or Italian art. I don’t know if I’ll be rushing back (unless there’s an exhibition I particularly want to see) but that’s just my personal taste. The place itself is very pleasant and worth a visit if you think it’s something you might enjoy.


Address: 39a Canonbury Square, London, N1 2AN


Opening Hours: Wed-Sat 11am-6pm, Sun 12pm-5pm

Prices: Adult £5, Concession £3.50

Somerset House in January

Somerset House, the magnificent 18th century building on the banks of the Thames, is home to a variety of art exhibitions and other interesting facilities. I paid a visit to check out some of the exhibitions they had going on.

I began in the Terrace Rooms in the South Wing, with Stanley Spencer: Heaven in a Hell of War. Spencer experienced the First World War and painted from his experience, both as a hospital orderly in Bristol and as a soldier on the Salonika front. This exhibition displays canvas panels on loan from the National Trust’s Sandham Memorial Chapel, as well as a projection of the altarpiece which was too fragile to remove. The Chapel was designed specifically for the panels, and was built by Spencer’s friends, John Louis and Mary Behrend. Here, they have been arranged in a way that echoes their original layout, and gives a good impression of how they look within the Chapel.

The paintings took six years to complete, and were finally finished in 1932. Unusually for images of war, they represent the domestic side of wartime life – scrubbing floors, washing clothes, making tea and inspecting kit. Spencer wanted to show how these ordinary chores became miraculous in the face of wartime danger – creating “a heaven in a hell of war”. It’s an intriguing idea, and I like it – seeking something positive in the face of such horror is a kind of defiance.

Next I ventured into the intriguingly-named Lightwells & Deadhouse, reached via the South Wing and taking me below the Somerset House courtyard, to explore Julian Stair: Quietus – The Vessel, Death and the Human Body. This unusual exhibition was made up of ceramic works in the form of coffins, jars and funerary urns. The strangest exhibit was a white urn containing the ashes of Stair’s uncle, shown alongside video and audio snippets from his life.

Finally, I went to the Courtauld Gallery to see the exhibition The Young Dürer: Drawing the Figure. This was an interesting take on the artist’s journeyman years, when he honed and developed his style.

Geoffrey Farmer: The Surgeon and the Photographer – The Curve, Barbican

Geoffrey Farmer: The Surgeon and the Photographer is currently showing at the Barbican, a strange and unnerving modern work of art. It is displayed in the Curve, a long winding gallery that reflects its name, and consists of 365 puppets made up of faces, masks, limbs and accessories applied like a collage onto fabric bodies. Popular culture, the ancient world, history and fiction are all referenced. The title of the exhibition comes from an essay by Walter Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, in which he compared the work of a magician to that of a painter and the role of a surgeon to that of a photographer. Both, Benjamin says, deal with fragments.

Creepy yet fascinating, these varied figures are rich in detail and personality. I was reminded of the song by the Doors, ‘People Are Strange’, as I wandered among them. Accompanying the exhibition was a montage of sounds, while at the end a series of pictures was presented as a film. I sat and watched these compelling images for a good few minutes.

I have ambivalent feelings towards modern art, but this is something that is worthwhile and rich in meaning. It closes on Sunday – visit beforehand if you can.

Ice Age Art: Arrival of the Modern Mind – British Museum

I’d originally planned to see Ice Age Art: Arrival of the Modern Mind on Friday night a few weeks ago, but when I went along to the British Museum after work I found that the exhibition was completely sold out. I ended up buying an advance ticket for the 10th of March, so that I could visit before going to the Manet exhibition a bit later on.

Although timed entry was in operation, the exhibition hall was still really full and there was a bit of queuing and waiting around. I was surprised at how popular this exhibition was. What struck me about most of the exhibits was how small they were: some of them were only as big as a finger, very few larger than my fist. I suppose it would be easier to transport these smaller pieces from wherever they are held permanently, but I also found myself wondering if they were made so small to make them easier to carry around at the time, whether as pieces of jewellery or amulets, or just because smaller items were easier to transport in a nomadic society.

The first half of the exhibition displayed art from 40, 000 to 20, 000 years ago, the majority of it from Siberian Russia or central Europe. Several pieces stood out for me: the ‘Lion Man’, which, in its representation of something that does not exist in reality, reveals the creative and imaginative capabilities of Ice Age humans, and a flute, which shows that they enjoyed playing music. Several animals, such as bison, lions or mammoths, are depicted, a reflection of the world in which these people lived, and in fact many of the sculptures are made of mammoth ivory.

Images of nude women abound in Ice Age art, and it’s unclear whether these represent real women or a symbol. Their nudity clearly indicates an artistic convention – in Ice Age society, clothes were a necessity – but were they made for and by women, perhaps to protect them in pregnancy and childbirth, or did they serve some other purpose?

Later in the exhibition, art from the later time of 20, 000 to 10, 000 years ago is displayed. The sheer number of horse sculptures and pictures are astounding, and some of them are really beautiful. The exhibition questions whether these pictures are designed to represent individual horses, or the horse, a symbolic creature. Horses were undoubtedly hugely important to Ice Age people, and it is possible that they worshipped a deity that took the form of a horse. Perhaps we’ll never know.

The reasons for and meanings behind many of the sculptures and artworks here are shrouded in mystery. We can only speculate as to the purpose they served and the role they played in the lives of Ice Age society. However, we can certainly appreciate the artistic ability of their creators, and if it is true that the ability to make art is what distinguishes modern humanity from the animals, then these artworks are crucially important in helping us understand how we evolved.

Alongside the ancient artworks, several modern pieces from the 20th century are displayed. I don’t feel these are really necessary, but they do seem to illustrate that in some ways art has come full circle – the representations of the body, for instance, in several modern sculptures and images closely resembles those of the Ice Age.

Ice Age Art: Arrival of the Modern Mind is on at the British Museum until 26th May.

Light Show – The Hayward Gallery

Light Show, the current exhibition at the Hayward Gallery on the South Bank, has been enjoying enormous popularity since it opened on 30 January. Tickets are selling out well in advance, so I decided to buy my ticket a couple of weeks ago in order to visit the exhibition yesterday. Setting my alarm for 8 am on a Sunday morning was torturous, but certainly worth it.

2013 0310 Hayward Gallery

The exhibition explores the use of light to shape space and experiment with different forms. Installations encompassed clear and coloured lights, fluorescent strip lighting, bulbs (including one designed to represent moonlight), mini LED lights, sparkling effects and continuous illumination. Some of the installations were enclosed in different rooms. I was amazed, impressed and enlightened (excuse the pun) by the exhibition.

I had a number of favourite exhibits. One was the very first one I saw – Cylinder II (2012) by Leo Villareal. This consists of strips of LED lights (19,600 in total) arranged in a cylinder, which move in hypnotic and evocative ways. The lights are actually controlled by a computer programme, but they are stunning. Another was Anthony McCall’s You and I, Horizontal (2005). This is in a room of its own and a projector throws out a beam of light – essentially a light sculpture that you can walk through.

Another favourite was Ivan Navarro’s Reality Show (Silver) (2010). This is a small room with four doors, around the size of a telephone box. When you are inside you can look up or down and see mirrors reflecting rows of light endlessly, as if you are in a long column or pipe. You can see yourself in the doors, but outside the sculpture, others can see you inside – a claustrophobic and unsettling experience. Navarro grew up in Chile during Pinochet’s dictatorship and the installation echoes the surveillance and control inherent in the system.

One thing that both surprised and impressed me was the extent to which children seemed to be enjoying themselves. Personally it wouldn’t occur to me to take a small child to a modern art exhibition, but there were loads there on this Sunday morning and they were fascinated by the exhibits – from the small baby amazed by the twinkling lights to the little boys excited by the rooms of coloured light.

Light Show is on until 28th April. You will almost certainly have to book in advance, and I also recommend booking the first slot available and turning up as soon as possible – in theory you can arrive at any time during the hour stated on your ticket, but even with visitor limits the space can get very crowded and early arrival gives you the best chance of beating the crowds. I’m so glad I came here – I wasn’t sure if I was going to enjoy it, but I really did.

Gaiety is the Most Outstanding Feature of the Soviet Union – Saatchi Gallery

The bizarre title of this exhibition drew me to the Saatchi Gallery on Sunday, as did the fact that it consists of new art from Russia – I am fascinated by anything Russian so Gaiety is the Most Outstanding Feature of the Soviet Union was on my must-see list.

This despite the fact that modern art is certainly not my forte. Still, I enjoyed my previous visit to the Gallery – rather to my surprise – and resolved to keep an open mind. Some of the exhibitions were lost on me, such as odd sculptures; some weren’t to my taste, but I could appreciate the thought that went into them and the humanity that lay behind them, such as Sergei Vasiliev’s photographs of tattooed prisoners and Boris Mikhailov’s pictures of the homeless in Ukraine, illustrating the disintegration of society in a post-Soviet world.

One of my favourite displays was this piece by Daria Krotova, bringing to mind the works of Dostoyevsky and Gogol and seemingly concerned with the recession and the culpability of those in positions of power.

2013 0303 Saatchi Gallery 02

2013 0303 Saatchi Gallery 01
2013 0303 Saatchi Gallery 03

I also loved these pictures by Valery Koshlyakov – made from cardboard and roughly-applied paint, they are striking and beautiful.

2013 0303 Saatchi Gallery 04

Grand Opera, Paris
2013 0303 Saatchi Gallery 06

Notre Dame, Paris and High-rise on Raushskaya Embankment

The exhibition is running until the 9th of June.

Breaking the Ice: Moscow Art, 1960-80s
While I was at the Gallery I also dropped in on the exhibition upstairs, which continued the Russian theme by displaying Moscow art from an earlier period. I found this harder to get into, but I did like this image which juxtaposed Lenin’s face with an easily recognisable advertising logo.

2013 0303 Saatchi Gallery 08

This exhibition is on until the 28th of March.