EXHIBITS – Defining Beauty: The Body in Ancient Greek Art
If you’re in London anytime before July, you need to add this exhibit to your “To-See” list. The British Museum opened their stunning retrospective, Defining Beauty: The Body in Ancient Greek Art March 26th, and will run it until July 5th. While this doesn’t have the same fanfare as some of the other exhibits, like the recent one on 8 Egyptian Mummies (which was fantastic, read about that here: Ancient Lives: New Discoveries), it’s wonderful in its simplicity. The art speaks for itself without the need for much else around it. The exhibit hosts approximately 150 pieces dating from the pre-historic period to Alexander the Great, to important pieces from the Renaissance when Italian artists like Michelangelo tried to recapture the glory of Classicism in their art. The exhibit explores daily life, gender, sexuality, athleticism, heroism, and the social and political ideologies the Greeks espoused through their views on the human form.
How was the Body Viewed in Ancient Greece?
Men: “Who dies in youth and vigour, dies the best” ~Homer
The Ancient Greeks were unashamed of the human body. Greek men were expected to care for their bodies as part of their social and political obligations. Athletics were performed naked in Ancient Greece to show fitness for battle and often the conquering hero appeared nude in Greek art. This is in stark contrast to other ancient cultures where nakedness was viewed as weakness. “Outward physical perfection was believed to reflect inner moral virtue.” Heracles, depicted in this exhibit, was a popular hero and considered the epitome of masculinity in Ancient Greece, the Roman Empire and the Early Middle Ages. Heracles was viewed as a symbol of fortitude and Greek men aspired to obtain his physique.
Winners of sport events like The Pantheism Games were given large jars, such as the one above, filled with oil as prizes. The oil was considered more valuable than the jars, but the jars were often beautifully decorated and kept afterward for storage. This jar depicts the Death of Priam (550-540BC).
Greek Gods like Eros, who personified sexuality and erotic love, were also featured in this exhibit. Eros’ statue was often set in gymnasia where the young men who came to train for public games could be admired. Interestingly, the word gymnasium come s from the Greek word, gymnós,meaning naked. Relationships between adult men and adolescent boys were quite common in Ancient Greece and were unabashedly portrayed in Greek art.
Women: “The greatest glory of a woman is to be least talked about by men.” ~Pericles (495 – 429 BC)
Unlike their male counterparts, the female body was not boldly celebrated in Ancient Greece. Women were expected to be covered and most depictions of them show them wearing gauzy, long dresses. Women were excluded from public life and their bodies by contrast were ‘covered, contained and controlled’. Men were seen as rational and women were viewed as ‘wild and passionate’. However, artists would circumvent this by suggestively portray women’s bodies in Ancient Greek art beneath the draped fabrics. In the above picture of Lely’s Venus, notice that she is crouched and covering most of her body as opposed to the exposed and open postures of other masculine subjects.
Although most people associate Greek art with pristine, white marble statues, colour was important and intrinsic to beauty for the Greeks. Even though statues were usually scrubbed clean after they were discovered in later periods, this was done to suit the taste of the discoverer. There were many interesting pieces on display in this section where the colours had been reapplied to show what they were intended to look like in Antiquity.
It’s an exquisite exhibit with treasures loaned from museums around the world, along with some of the British Museum’s best pieces. It is well worth seeing if you’re in London.
Defining Beauty: The Body in Ancient Greek Art runs at the British Museum until July 5th.
Cost: £16.50, members or under 16s – FREE.
To purchase tickets online, please visit: http://www.britishmuseum.org/whats_on/exhibitions/defining_beauty/tickets.aspx
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