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The first thing you see in the British Museum’s spring blockbuster, ‘Defining Beauty: The Body in Ancient Greek Art’, is Aphrodite’s bum. The backside of the goddess of love is a good start to an exhibition by anybody’s standards and it’s a perfectly sly introduction to a show that bravely tackles the idea of beauty. Greek art inspired the Romans and everyone since by striving for ever-more sophisticated perfection.
This is a show of astonishing treasures, from a tiny 750 BC figure of the hero Ajax on the point of suicide and with an erect cock, to a 300 BC bronze figure of an athlete, discovered intact in 1994 off the coast of Croatia, his lips and nipples delicately picked out in copper. It also reveals a more human side to ancient Greek art: statues of children and drunks, pornographic pots and randy gods. There is perfection in works like the ‘Figure of an Athlete Known as “Westmacott Youth”', but also humour, magic and a constant questioning of what it means to be human. ‘The Greeks were aiming for certainty,’ says curator Ian Jenkins. ‘In a world of certain death.’ He talks us through the meaning of the classical nude:
‘Athens in the fifth century BC was the world’s first democracy. This political development was accompanied by an intense focus in art on the human self. The philosopher Protagoras proclaimed: “Man is the measure of all things.”’
‘Greek art, very early on, adopts nudity as a sign of virtue. It’s not shameful. When an aristocratic young man took his clothes off, he was not naked, he was nude, and he had put on the uniform of the righteous. But public nudity was not the norm in day-to-day life. Male athletes would be naked in the wrestling school and gymnasium, and male nudity was acceptable in the symposium, a kind of drinking party, where men undressed to indulge in wine, song and sex with courtesans and boys.’
‘This figure [known as ‘Westmacott Youth’] is, to my eye, Charmides, who attracted a huge following in Athens in 431 BC. Everybody looked at him as if he was a statue, a being who was more than human. A friend of Sokrates said: “If he were to take his clothes off, he would be ‘without face’, so beautiful is his body.”’
Strike a pose
‘The Greeks’ self-conscious cultivation of the body was unique among ancient cultures. Excellence and honour were achieved by having a certain look, as well as conducting the right sort of love affairs, excelling at athletics, fighting in defence of one’s city and – if necessary – dying a “beautiful death” on the battlefield.’
‘Beauty of mind was as important as a beautiful body. The youth’s sexual parts are understated to reduce the erotic charge of the work and heighten the moral imperative.’
‘The problem for these sculptors was how to deal with their genius for representing bodies and living things. They came under fire from philosophers who said “All you’re doing is representing nature. Art transcends nature, it’s superhuman.” So the sculptors took them on to show that their creativity was equal to nature itself.’
Not all white
‘Most Greek sculpture that survives from antiquity is carved from white marble. It’s often assumed that there’s a link between the pure freshly cut marble and the idealism of Greek art. In fact, the opposite is true. Colour was intrinsic to ancient ideas of beauty, and sculptures would have been painted in bright colours.’