Back in April J and I visited the Defining Beauty exhibition at the British Museum which finished in early July. It’s the only one of their exhibitions where I’ve been as ambivalent about it on the way out as I was on the way in – which says rather more about me than the exhibition, I think. The subject of the exhibition was Ancient Greek sculpture and the incredible impact it has had on the modern Western definition of beauty. And I’m afraid that when it comes to Greek sculpture I’m somewhat of a heretic – I find all those gleaming white idealised bodies rather … bland. Even as I grant that it has indeed had a major impact on the art of more modern times (modern here meaning in the last five or six hundred years) and a worthwhile subject for an exhibition.
(You might be asking why on earth I went to see it! But there’s been exhibitions at the British Museum in the past where I’ve not been enthused in advance but have been by the end, so it was worth a try. And as we’re Members we have free entry so it’s easy to pop into an exhibition just because it’s there.)
The exhibition opened with a bit of scene setting. Part of this was a map of the extent of the Greek world in Alexander the Great’s time (after he did his conquering bit) – despite knowing he conquered vast swathes of the known world I’m always a bit taken aback at how big that is on a map. The other piece of information that particularly struck me was that what’s known about Greek sculpture mostly comes from Roman copies of Greek originals. And one of the pieces in this room was Lely’s Venus (normally on display near the Assyrian Galleries in the BM), which is one of these Roman copies. The other sculptures in this introductory room illustrated the range of styles of sculpture – using three pieces by three different artists who were all training & active in the 5th Century BC. The variation came in whether they were interested in things like mathematically perfect proportions of bodies, or representing the fluidity of movement.
The first half of the next room was the stand out highlight of the exhibition for me. They had half a dozen replicas of sculptures painted as we think they would’ve been at the time. And given my “complaint” about this art form is that it strikes me as bland, well this was anything but. Perhaps a little garish, but so much more interesting. One of the pieces was a large (plaster replica of a) bronze of Athena – it’s easy to remind oneself that the dull green of bronze was once a shiny gold, but it’s quite another thing to see it. I also liked an Athene wearing her snake-trimmed cloak, in a vivid green with the snake heads picked out in colours. And did you know the Persians wore brightly coloured onesies? Me neither!
The next room looked at what made Greek art different from other contemporary (or just older) cultures art styles. One section was a compare and contrast with Egyptian and Cypriot sculpture – three statues in a row each of a young man striding forward, one from each culture. The Greek one was noticeably more natural in appearance, with the Egyptian and Cypriot ones looking very stiff and stilted in comparison. The Greek one was also naked, which came up again in more detail in the other compare & contrast – this time between Assyrian reliefs and Greek reliefs. Again the subject matter was similar, both reliefs were battle scenes – and again the Greek example had more fluidity and motion. The use and meaning of nudity was markedly different between the two cultures. In the Assyrian example it was the defeated prisoners who were naked – a sign of their low statues, shame & humiliation. In the Greek example the heroes are naked to show off their virility and their virtue.
The third room also had a few other themes, although they made slightly odd bedfellows. One of these was a case talking about women in Classical Greek art – most of what I remember from this is the juxtaposition of male nudity as virtue and women clothed for their virtue. There was also a section about representation of the gods, where the key point was that the gods were people. Impossibly beautiful, divine people, but people nonetheless.
The next room started with a look at representation of the stages of life, and ended with the erotic in art – again a slightly odd juxtaposition. The stages of life looked at were birth, marriage and death and my favourite piece in this section was a stunning representation of a baby. The labels here talked about how representation of childhood and children as they really were was a departure from previous art styles. The section on marriage was mostly concerned with how marriage was thought of for women – analogised with abduction (which I was previously aware was a trope) and with death. Having side by side pieces where women are moving from girlhood to wifehood as if they’d died next to gravestones for young warriors slain in battle was quite striking.
In the penultimate room we moved forward in time past the golden age of idealised beauty (or blandness, depending on taste) to sculptures that had more differentiation. Faces in particular began to look like real people – although quite probably not the person they’re were supposed to be. The room ended with a pair of pieces representing knucklebone players, with very different flavours. One of these was two girls playing a peaceful friendly game as a last hurrah before marriage and womanly respectability. And the other was the remains of piece where two boys had come to blows over a disagreement about the game. Only one of the boys was still intact, all that remained of the other was the arm that the first boy was biting – which made the piece very striking in a way the artist wouldnt’ve expected.
That room also had a case looking at the representations of (North?) Africans in Greek sculpture – sometimes as caricature, but sometimes in a more nuanced and human fashion. The piece that caught my eye here was a centrepiece for a table of an acrobat and a crocodile. This part of the room neatly segued into the start of the last room, which looked at the way that Greek art changed as it met the other cultures that Alexander the Great brought into the Hellenistic world – in particular India.
The exhibition finished with two large reclining male nudes which had a particular impact on the Renaissance. The thematic statement for the exhibition, if you will. These pieces when discovered changed the way artists represented bodies in Western art. Think of the way that Medieval art has these stiff clothes horses that don’t really look like they’d move like people, and then think of the art of Michaelangelo or Leonardo da Vinci and you’ll see what a difference this renewed interest in the idealised beauty of Greek sculpture had.
As I said at the beginning, this exhibition wasn’t really my cup of tea. Which doesn’t mean it was bad, far from it – just I’m a bit of an uncultured barbarian 😉 What I came away from it thinking was that I would like to see more of the painted replicas – knowing they were painted and seeing what they looked like are two very different things.