When this travelling exhibition comes to Bendigo Art Gallery, we’ll come face-to-face with an ancient world – and ourselves
The ancient Greeks believed in gods living atop Mount Olympus that looked and behaved like human beings. They feared snake-haired Medusa and other unspeakable monsters. They competed naked in athletics. And yet, the ancient Greeks grappled with similar questions that we do today – especially when it came to the human body. What does the ideal body look like? Why should we keep our bodies fit and toned? Should art represent a diverse range of body types?
The human body in Greek art and thought is the focus of the British Museum’s travelling exhibition, The Body Beautiful in Ancient Greece. It’s the brainchild of Dr Ian Jenkins, Senior Curator of the Greece and Rome department. The original plan was for the exhibition to tour China during the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, but the response was so immense that Dr Jenkins removed the focus on athletics and transformed it into something universal.
“The Greeks are us,” explains Dr Jenkins. “The Greeks invented the modern idea of the human body. In Athens, there was a huge leap forward in what we call humanism: the idea of the human being as the centre of the universe.” A highlight of the exhibition is the sculpture of Discobolus, the discus thrower. He’s dramatically poised mid-throw, ready to whip his muscled body around at any moment. He’s so realistic that visitors might want to give his throwing arm a wide berth, but in fact, he wasn’t intended to be taken literally. His limbs and torso correspond perfectly with the Greek philosophy of rhythm, proportion and a balance of opposites. Even the nude sculptures tell us much about the Greek mindset. “The idea of the body as a beautiful thing but also a moral thing is often missed,” says Dr Jenkins. “The ancient Greeks saw it as their own personal responsibility to look after the moral welfare of themselves and of their city.”
The exhibition is divided into several themes, including the male body beautiful, Aphrodite and the female body, athletes, the human face and sex and desire. Famous works of art catch the eye first: a bronze figure of Jupiter, an enormous marble head from a statue of Hercules and a marble statue of Socrates – all created between 200 BC and 100 AD.
Gods and famous thinkers aside, many artworks reveal some uncanny similarities to our modern world. One vase depicts Greek athletes exercising to music, and there are gasp-inducing depictions of lively sexual exploits.
But it’s not all beautiful bodies – at least in the expected sense of the word. While he admits that the ancient Greeks harboured “a certain intolerance about not having the right look,” Dr Jenkins was careful to include artworks that represent what he calls the the beautiful statue of the ugly body. “There’s a portrait of an old nurse cradling a child on her lap,” he says, reflecting on what he considers one of the most powerful works in the exhibition. “She is a person who has lived far beyond all expectations… and the baby is equally vulnerable by virtue of its extreme youth. But she is looking down laughing at the baby and the baby is looking out at us, laughing at the world. Together they make a wonderful contrast of human experience.” If there was ever an argument for the human condition being universal, then it’s here.