The Body Beautiful in Ancient Greece

October 11, 2014
Marble Statue of a Discus Thrower (Diskobolus) (2nd century AD)
Marble Statue of a Discus Thrower (Diskobolus) (2nd century AD)

There is more reason in your body than in your best wisdom. (Nietzsche)

It’s slightly surprising that one must travel to Bendigo to see an exhibition such as The Body Beautiful in Ancient Greece. Sourced from the holdings of the British Museum this show would be a major drawcard in any state gallery, but the only director with the spark required to get it to Australia was Bendigo’s Karen Quinlan. Following hard on the heels of the same venue’s exhibition of works from the Royal Academy earlier this year, The Body Beautiful’ is a wondrous affirmation of what a regional gallery can do when there is a director that leads from the front and a Council that supports her efforts.

It would be painful to dwell on the contrast between the Bendigo Art Gallery and institutions such as the Art Gallery of NSW and the National Gallery of Australia, which have been going through ‘interesting times’ of late. There’s plenty to discuss in regards to the exhibition itself.

It may seem at first there could be nothing more backward-looking than a show of Greek sculptures – those icy busts and torsos that were the subject of endless, tedious drawing lessons for yesterday’s art students. The academic prestige of these pieces ensured that the first acquisitions made by the National Gallery of Victoria, which opened in 1861, were plaster casts of famous classical sculptures. They arrived in pieces, providing a windfall for local sculptor Charles Summers, who had the job of putting them back together.

Marble Group of a Nymph Trying To Escape From a Satyr (2nd century AD)

Marble Group of a Nymph Trying To Escape From a Satyr (2nd century AD)

Something strange has happened in the intervening years because the Bendigo exhibition is not the least bit dull. On the contrary, it is one of the most thrilling shows to be seen in Australia this year. The display features a compact selection of marbles, bronzes, vases and artefacts, along with a scale model of Olympia, put together by BM curators, Ian Jenkins and Victoria Turner. But it’s not the size of the show that counts – Bendigo is simultaneously hosting an historical survey of underwear from London’s Victoria and Albert Museum! – but the pattern of continuities and contrasts between the ancient Greeks and the world of today.

One of the meanings of the term “classic” is “something of enduring significance”, regardless of age. It’s fascinating to compare the Greek obsession with the body beautiful with our own ideas. The Greeks saw physical culture as part of a holistic view of life, closely bound up with the development of the mind and the soul. Although we still pay lip service to the Latin phrase: Mens sana in corpore sano (a healthy mind in a healthy body), our culture tends to make a fetish of the body, or at least a particular image of the body.

The gallery teases out the historical connections by displaying five large photos by Bill Henson on the wall facing the entrance to the show. Although many see Henson as the apogee of contemporaneity, his images owe a huge debt to classicism. Like the Greeks, he treats body and soul as indivisible, inviting us to find depths of meaning in the disposition of an arm or leg.

Outside the realms of art one hardly thinks of mind or soul when confronted with the tattooed, pumped-up bodies of footballers, or the skeletal look that was recently in vogue among models. The Greeks would not have found any of this beautiful. Their ideal body was perfectly proportioned – with none of the distortions that today’s subcultures find appealing.

Greek art was so preoccupied with the depiction of beauty that deviations from the ideal were viewed as comical. Nudity was socially acceptable at the baths, the gymnasium, and even in those convivial gatherings we call symposia. A Greek athlete would compete in the nude, allowing audiences to admire his physique.

The rules of depiction were different for women, with only prostitutes and courtesans portrayed in the nude. The most striking example of this is an image on a drinking cup from 480 BC that shows a prostitute lowering herself onto a client. It’s a piece reproduced in all the books on classical erotica.

Even the most respectable women may have worn robes that were diaphanous and body-hugging, intended to accentuate the figure’s natural curves. The show features a headless marble sculpture from 100-30 BC of a girl dressed in this suggestive manner. It is identified as a kore – the female counterpart of the kouroi – those idealised standing marble youths, frequently used as grave markers. Even in their fragmentary state these kouroi are so common in museums they must have been an everyday sight in the Hellenic cities.

The Greek attitude to sexuality was completely different from our own. Homosexual relationships between young men, or between grown men and adolescents were commonplace. It was part of the process of growing up. One vase in this exhibition, from 540 BC, shows “visibly aroused” men courting youths. Another shows homosexual dalliance between athletes.

This open-minded attitude to the body was swept away by the repressive norms of Christian culture, which installed modesty and chastity as cardinal virtues.

However, life was not one long orgy for the Greeks, who recognised that the pursuit of bodily pleasures could not override one’s duties as a citizen. This is where concepts such as self-control (sophrosyne) and self-governance (enkrateia) became important. The greater securities of contemporary society also entail greater self-indulgence. We’re softer, more easily frightened, and have less sense of social responsibility.

The people we call ‘Greeks’ were not a unified nation, but a group of city-states constantly making war on each other or forming tenuous alliances. Every boy was trained as a warrior, prepared to give his life in combat if necessary.

At this distance it’s hard for us to understand the Greek attitude towards religion. The pagan Gods, despite their tremendous powers, were every bit as flawed as the humans from whom they demanded tribute. Jealous, lustful, perpetually scheming and squabbling, they were models of vice rather than divinity. They are Gods that crave and understand pleasure, quite unlike the deities of the monotheistic religions that followed.

They are depicted in a ways that seem entirely irreverent. Zeus always looks fearsome and paternal, but Aphrodite can be as sexy as a Hollywood starlet. Dionysos, god of wine, is often shown as drunken and effeminate, inordinately fond of low company. Pan, whom the Victorian poets adored, is half-man, half-goat. Each of these gods is represented in this exhibition, along with numerous images of Herakles (AKA. Hercules), that mythical strongman who would eventually be admitted to the ranks of the immortals. Herakles’s might and courage acted as an inspiration to self-styled heroes such as Alexander the Great, who would also be worshipped as a god after his early death.

To us it seems odd that a statue of Aphrodite might inspire both religious and lascivious sentiments, but the Greeks saw no contradiction. The gods of Olympus were always heading down to earth in pursuit of some attractive mortal. Zeus was a serial rapist.

The highlight of the show is left till the very end: the Discus Thrower, produced by the Romans in the second century AD after a lost original from the 5th Century BC by the Greek sculptor, Myron. The gallery allows this work a room to itself, giving it the prominence it deserves. The classical beauty of the piece is only slightly tarnished when we realise that the head, which had been broken from the body, has been reattached facing in the wrong direction. At this stage of his wind-up, the discus thrower should be looking back over his shoulder, his body coiled as tight as a spring.

One final work that deserves attention is a small marble sculpture of the philosopher, Socrates, dated 200 BC – 100 AD. Unlike the kouroi, this marble portrait is not at all flattering. Socrates was ugly and dumpy, relying on the powers of his mind to exert an attraction. Although he is known for the dialogues that have made a lasting contribution to western thought, Socrates was the son of a sculptor, and started his career as a stone mason. He would have known all about the idealising tendencies of Greek sculpture when he framed his own rigorous pursuit of Truth.

The Body Beautiful in Ancient Greece
Bendigo Art Gallery, until 9 November.

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 11th October, 2014