Social media is awash with photographs that people have taken of themselves. Everyone is guilty of it; from schoolchildren and pop stars, to Barack Obama and the Pope. Quite often these photographs display things that identify the person as part of a group by the different things they find important, such as, jewellery, clothes, piercings, tattoos, physique and so on. The same behaviour could arguably be said of the ancient Greeks in their fascination in representing the human body.
In a new exhibition called, ‘Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art’, the British Museum will display some very well-known Greek statues alongside some smaller pieces in order to explore the thoughts behind the Greek idea of beauty.
In his recent British Museum lecture, Ian Jenkins said that the Greek love of the naked form could partly be explained as a way of distinguishing them from the Persians for whom nudity was shameful. In other words it gave them a group identity.
Greek philosophy also had an influence on the art. Jenkins explained the Greeks believed that there was a constant struggle to maintain order in the world and the only way chaos could be avoided was through balance. This idea of balance can be seen in the statues themselves. For example, look at the Spear Bearer or Doryphorus. It has symmetry to it. One of the legs bears weight, the other is weight free, some muscles are taught, whilst others are relaxed, one arm is raised and the other is by his side, and so on. In this way they achieved a harmony that for them defined beauty.
If all this perfection is little intimidating the exhibition also includes later statues, such as, an old nurse holding a baby, which show a more realistic depiction of people. Although the famous statues cannot fail to impress, there is something emotive about these more human statues that is very appealing.
The exhibition at the British Museum runs from 26th March to 5th July 2015.
The British Museum website says:
"Experience the brilliance and diversity of ancient Greek art in this major exhibition focusing on the human body.
For centuries the ancient Greeks experimented with ways of representing the human body, both as an object of beauty and a bearer of meaning.
The remarkable works of art in the exhibition range from abstract simplicity of prehistoric figurines to breathtaking realism in the age of Alexander the Great. These works continued to inspire artists for hundreds of years, giving form to thought and shaping our own perceptions of ourselves.
'The chief forms of beauty are order, symmetry and clear delineation’ – Aristotle
'In portraying ideal types of beauty... you bring together from many models the most beautiful features of each' – Socrates"