Rodin and the Art of Ancient Greece @ the British Museum

In my spare time I simply haunt the British Museum. (Rodin, 1892)

Rodin and the British Museum

François Auguste René Rodin (1840 – 1917), known as Auguste Rodin, is widely seen as the godfather of modern sculpture. He visited London for the first time in 1841. On a trip to the British Museum, he discovered the so-called Elgin Marbles, the supersize Greek sculptures of men horses and mythical creatures which once lined the Parthenon in Athens – and was immediately captivated by their scale and power.

For this exhibition the Museum has had the strikingly simple and effective idea of borrowing a substantial number of Rodin’s classic works from the Rodin Museum in Paris, and placing them next to and among a generous selection of original Parthenon sculptures. Over 80 works by Rodin in marble, bronze and plaster, along with some 13 of Rodin’s sketches, are displayed alongside major pieces of ancient Greek art from the Museum collection.

Thus the exhibition includes a number of Rodin’s greatest hits, iconic sculptures which are part of the Western imaginarium, such as The Thinker, The Kiss, The Gates of Hell and the Burghers of Calais.

Years ago, when a teenager, I hitch-hiked to Paris, kipped in the Bois de Boulogne,and spent the days going on pilgrimages to all the art galleries and museums. I remember being bitterly disappointed by the Musée Rodin and that disappointment has lasted to this day. The exhibition was an opportunity to see if my largely negative image of Rodin stood up to the evidence or was just a personal prejudice.

The ancient Greeks

Between 1800 to 1812 workmen employed by Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin – British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, or ‘the Sublime Porte’ as it was referred to in those days –  removed about half of the surviving sculptures of the Parthenon, the vast temple to Athena in Athens, as well as sculptures from the nearby buildings Propylaea and Erechtheum. These were shipped to Britain and put on display but, even at the time, contemporaries were critical enough for Parliament to hold an enquiry into his actions. Seeing the way the wind was blowing, Elgin sold the marbles to the British Government who passed them along to the recently created British Museum where, despite vocal lobbying by the Greek government, they remain to this day.

Cavalcade from the north frieze of the Parthenon, by Phidias (around 440 BC)

Cavalcade from the north frieze of the Parthenon, by Phidias (around 440 BC)

Throughout the nineteenth century the art of ancient Greece, and especially the statuary, was seen as the peak of human creativity and art. Renaissance giants like Michelangelo, Raphael and Leonardo had attempted to recreate some of their magic in painting, but the Greeks remained the source of artistic ideas of Beauty, which were built around realism – the realistic depiction of the human and animal body, with accuracy, elegance and grace.

The Parthenon figures were carved to fill the triangular pediment at the west and east of the building, as well as to fill the metopes or square alcoves roughly above each of the 46 outer columns. There was also a set of inner columns supporting an inner wall, and above these ran a continuous frieze of figures carved in relief.

There was, in other words, a huge amount of space to be filled by more than life size carvings of gods and heroes and animals (mostly horses being ridden in battle). Hence the fact that, even though the Elgin Marbles only represent a fraction of the originals, they still fill a vast gallery at the Museum.

Because all the statues we have now are worn to a kind of perfect white, people forget that Greek sculpture was originally brightly painted, and sometimes had gold leaf applied. This is a fanciful imagining of how the Parthenon would have looked when new. At this end we can see the pediment filled with freestanding statues of gods, small in the narrow ends, growing larger in size to gesture up towards the King of the Gods at the apex. And underneath you can see a set of 14 metopes above each column, each with an individual carving of an incident from Greek myth.At the Museum the curators tried to recreate the effect of the arched pediment by placing the scattered fragments in their correct positions relative to each other, with the metope carvings placed separately. This is how Rodin saw and was overwhelmed by them.

The Parthenon gallery in the British Museum, about 1890. Photograph. © The Trustees of the British Museum

The Parthenon gallery in the British Museum, about 1890. Photograph © The Trustees of the British Museum

What is so special about the sculptures from the Parthenon? They were thought, even by the Greeks themselves, to be the peak of their artistic achievement. The sculptor in charge of the works, Phidias, was credited with a godlike power for realism, for his ability to summon the gods from Olympus, and heroes from the Elysian Fields, and place them before the viewer.

For me the important factors are:

  1. They are larger than life. They had to be since they were embedded 30 metres high on walls.
  2. As a result their gestures are clear and distinct. The overall positioning of all the figures creates harmonies and rhythms which are perceivable even at a distance.
  3. Counter-intuitively, maybe, there is a staggering amount of detail in the sculptures. Observed down at eye level in an exhibition like this (as they were never intended to be seen), you can see the amount of effort that has gone in to depicting the muscles, ligaments and veins of, for example, this wonderful horse’s head, with its flared nostrils and bulging eyes. It’s called the Selene horse’s head because it is part of a frieze depicting the moon goddess, Selene.
Selene horse's head, East Pediment of the Parthenon, designed by Phidias (c. 435 BC)

Selene horse’s head, East Pediment of the Parthenon, designed by Phidias (c. 435 BC)

There is therefore, to my mind, a kind of super realism about the figures. They are larger than life in both senses – the subjects are gods of heroes of legend, and the figures are all larger than life size – yet they include finely carved details which also work to ennoble, expand and aggrandise the figures. They are images of power, imaginative, political and cultural power.

Rodin

Rodin in his Museum of Antiquities at Meudon on the outskirts of Paris, about 1910 Photo: Albert Harlingue. Image © Musée Rodin

Rodin in his Museum of Antiquities at Meudon on the outskirts of Paris, about 1910
Photo by Albert Harlingue. Image © Musée Rodin

By the 1880s Rodin had made his reputation as a sculpture and was gaining public commissions. He had always been fascinated by the sculpture of the ancient Greeks, still in his day held up as the absolute peak of human artistic achievement.

He had already studied Greek sculpture from books, sketches and casts available to him in Paris (he never, in fact, went to Greece). After all the Louvre in Paris has a large collection of ancient Green sculpture. Where possible Rodin collected fragments of ancient sculpture when they became available, placing them around the garden of his property in Meudon. Apparently he moved and repositioned them among the trees and bushes to create changing artistic effects.

Eventually he amassed a collection of some 6,000 fragments and he never ceased sketching and drawing them, from all angles. The result is a vast archive of sketches, drawings, half-finished carvings and completed sculptures.

Rodin’s aesthetic

But Rodin wasn’t slavishly devoted to simply making copies of ancient Greek perfection. He had a more modern aesthetic than that. He came to believe that sculptures had a life cycle of their own, an inner artistic integrity. If many had been damaged, well, that was their fate, and their current damaged state was somehow ‘true’ to their inner destiny. Thus Rodin resisted various suggestions that ancient Greek statues be ‘repaired’. You can see what he’s getting at.

Rodin liked the way that powerful expression was conveyed through the fragmented bodies of the Greek statues. He even removed the heads and limbs from his own figures to make them closer to the broken relics of the past. By doing so, he created a new genre of contemporary art – the headless, limbless torso.

This explains the prominence of process in Rodin’s own work. Many of his pieces seem to be emerging from the stone they are carved in, often with struggle. Similarly his ‘finished’ pieces often betray the work and effort required to make them.

The exhibition displays a massive male torso from the Parthenon next to a similar sized male torso by Rodin. The Parthenon one is smooth (though with pockmarks and gouges caused over time) but the Rodin one has a deliberately knobbly bobbly surface – at its core it is a realistic depiction of the male body, muscles and all, but in Rodin’s hands the sculpture also preserves the sense of effort which went into making it. The statue is not so much an image of Perfection as a symbol of the human effort to create Perfection.

Torso by Auguste Rodin

Torso by Auguste Rodin

On reflection, it is this deliberate favouring of a muddy, impure, less than precise, deliberately knobbly, bulgy, imperfect surface, which I don’t like about Rodin.

You see it in individual works and in his larger compositions.

The gates of hell

In the same year he visited the British Museum, 1881, aged 41, Rodin received his first big public commission, to create the bronze gates for a new museum of the decorative arts in Paris. Inspired by Dante, Rodin decided to create a set of gates on the theme of hell (‘Abandon hope all ye that enter here’ being the motto carved above the gates of hell in Dante’s medieval poetic epic, The Divine Comedy).

To this day I remember the massive build-up given to this piece at the Musée Rodin in Paris, and then my massive disappointment on seeing it. Instead of clarity and order – the clarity and rhythm you see so perfectly achieved in the Parthenon friezes – what I was immediately struck by was what a mess it is.

The gates of hell by Auguste Rodin

The gates of hell by Auguste Rodin

I defy you to figure out what is going on here. Your eye is drawn to the three figures at the top (themselves in a demoralising, broken backed huddle) then to the figure of the Thinker beneath them and beneath him? What the devil is going on in the two panels of the doors? And what is happening on the two columns either side of the doorway? I still find it as muddy and confusing as I did forty years ago.

The exhibition has a large section devoted to the gates. Rodin worked on it for decades, even after the planned museum was abandoned and the commission rendered redundant. He continued tinkering with all the small figures, taking many of them out of the gates and blowing them up into full-scale figures.

The most famous is The Thinker and there is a huge cast of it here. For me it epitomises Rodin’s strengths and weaknesses.

The Thinker by Auguste Rodin

The Thinker by Auguste Rodin

On the pro side it captures an archetypally human action in such a profound way that it quickly became an icon of Western art, and is probably among the half dozen most famous art images in the world (along with the Mona Lisa, Michelangelo’s David etc).

But, up close and personal, I don’t like it. It looks lumpy and unfinished. (Alas it reminded me a bit of The Thing from the Fantastic Four comics in the way the surface, though polished and shiny, is ridged and gnarled and patched with what look like strips of clay used to build up the figure, rather than the actual lineaments of cartilage and muscle.)

The Thing from the Fantastic Four

The Thing from the Fantastic Four

It looks unfinished in exactly the way that the Gates of Hell look unfinished to me – muddy and indistinct.

This, I’m sure, is part of Rodin’s conscious aesthetic, a muscular, sculptural style which makes a virtue of flagging up its own effort, the struggle of creation.

Aesthetic of the unfinished

Among other aspects of this, Rodin encouraged the assistants and students who often helped him to carve his figures (he ran a workshop full of assistants) to leave secondary parts of the sculpture unfinished, and even to emphasise the physicality of the work by marking secondary areas with notches created by claw hammers and chisels.

This is perfectly obvious in Rodin’s other supersonically famous work, The Kiss of 1882. The exhibition curators a) are proud to have borrowed this larger-than-lifesize plaster cast of the kiss from the Rodin Museum. And b) make the ingenious suggestion that the pose of the two lovers (actually a scene from Dante’s Inferno of two adulterous lovers about to be discovered and murdered by the cuckolded husband) is based on the pose of two female goddesses, originally on the East Pediment of the Parthenon, one of which reclines luxuriously in the lap of her companion.

The Kiss by Auguste Rodin, large version, after 1898. Plaster cast from first marble version of 1888–98 © Musée Rodin

The Kiss by Auguste Rodin, large version, after 1898. Plaster cast from first marble version of 1888–98 © Musée Rodin

But for me the really dominant motif is the deliberately rough unfinished nature of the rock they’re sitting on. On the plus side I suppose the proximity of the gouged and hacked rock emphasises and brings out the luxurious smooth polished surface of the lovers’ two young bodies. But I still don’t like it.

To clarify further, here are two works which are directly related. The first one is a scene from the fight between the lapiths and the centaurs, which takes up a large part of one of the friezes on the Parthenon and is thought to be an allegory of the struggle between reason and animality. Note the clarity, even the stylised nature of the pose, and the clarity of line of each of the figures.

Lapith and centaur fighting from the Parthenon

Lapith and centaur fighting from the Parthenon

Next to it the exhibition places a sculpture titled The Centauress (1904), a figure Rodin expanded from a minor position on the gates of hell.

The Centauress by Auguste Rodin (1901-04)

The Centauress by Auguste Rodin (1901-04)

I found this object particularly ugly and clumsy. The device of having the figure emerge from heavily-notched stone really doesn’t work for me at all. The way her overlong arms are merging with the pillar strikes me as some kind of horrifying physical deformity or mutation. It is not a very good depiction of either a horse’s body or a woman’s torso, and the less said about the unformed / melting head the better.

To summarise – Rodin’s attempt to assimilate the Greek influence and go beyond it to create a new ‘modern’ aesthetic of fragments which foreground the effort of their own creation has, in my opinion, very hit and miss results. Mostly miss.

His large masterpiece, The Burghers of Calais, is here – as a complete piece showing six larger-than-lifesize statues of the six men, alongside individual preparatory studies of some of the figures.

If you are a student of sculpture or a fan of Rodin this is a really thrilling opportunity to study his sketches, his inspiration, his working practices and the models which go towards creating a masterpiece. But for me, set among the light and clarity of line and design of the Greeks, they felt clumsy and hulking, their postures contrived and awkward.

Rodin

The Burghers of Calais by Auguste Rodin

The Burghers of Calais by Auguste Rodin

Phidias

Unmounted youths preparing for the cavalcade, block from the north frieze of the Parthenon, about 438–432 BC, Marble, © The Trustees of the British Museum

Unmounted youths preparing for the cavalcade, block from the north frieze of the Parthenon, about 438–432 BC, Marble © The Trustees of the British Museum

On the cusp of modernism

Rodin lived long enough to see the advent of full-blown Modernism. By 1905 Matisse and Picasso in their different ways were experiencing the influence of ‘primitive’ masks from Africa and the Pacific which were suggesting entire new ways of seeing and thinking about ‘art’.

Within a few years a new generation of sculptors would break decisively with the entire Western tradition and its indebtedness to the naturalism of the ancient Greeks – the ones that spring to mind being Jacob Epstein (b.1880), Eric Gill (b.1882), Henri Gaudier-Brzeska (b.1891) and Alberto Giacometti (b.1901).

I suppose it’s unfair to compare Rodin to what came after him, but for me this next generation of sculptors blow the world apart, open the doors to an infinity of possibilities, and are the true creators of modern sculpture.

For me, a piece like Henri Gaudier-Brzeska’s Red Stone Dancer (c.1913) is worth more than everything Rodin did put together. I like clarity of line and design as against muddiness and vagueness, crisp geometry as against random lumpiness, and energy as against languid kissing, dull thinking and the hapless, demoralised postures of the Calais Burghers.

Red Stone Dancer (c. 1913) by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska © Tate

Red Stone Dancer (c. 1913) by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska © Tate

For me the Henri Gaudier-Brzeska is sensuous but with a virile, alert, energetic sensuality, the sensuality of athletic life.

Light and airy exhibition space

By far the most striking thing about the exhibition is that the Museum has opened up the big windows at the end of the Sainsbury Gallery in order to let light flood in.

The partitions between different sections of the show do not extend to the ceiling so the effect is not of separate ‘rooms’ – rather dark and gloomy rooms as they had for, say, the Scythians exhibition – but of light flooding throughout the space, showing the Greek works, in particular, in something more like the fierce Mediterranean light of their homeland.

Installation view of Rodin and the art of ancient Greece at the British Museum

Installation view of Rodin and the art of ancient Greece at the British Museum

I’m afraid this isn’t a very good photo, but enough to show how the individual statues are staged at the window end of the exhibition, building up to the full cast of the Burghers of Calais in the middle distance of the shot.

The effect of this natural light, and the clean lines and clarity of the modern floor-to-ceiling windows, are wonderfully uplifting. It was relaxing to just sit on the benches conveniently placed next to them, and to enjoy the precise, geometrical architecture of the Georgian houses opposite, and the bright patio space with its carefully tended shrubs and small trees.

The video


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Reviews of other British Museum exhibitions

Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art @ British Museum

‘To the ancient Greeks the body was a thing of beauty and a bearer of meaning.’

When the people in front of me opened the big swing doors into the first room of this exhibition, I couldn’t help exclaiming ‘Wow!’ Four stunning life-size Greek statues, dramatically spotlit in a darkened room, appear as if in a temple, a cave, a magician’s treasury. (They are Lely’s Venus crouching; the river god Ilissos, by the greatest ancient Greek sculptor, Phidias; the Townley Discobolus, a Roman copy of the lost original by Myron; and Georg Römer’s reconstruction of the Doryphoros by Polykleitos.)

This is a wonderfully uplifting and insightful show, full of objects which can make you marvel at human creativity.

Discobolus: Marble statue of a discus-thrower (discobolus) by Myron. Roman copy of a bronze Greek original of the 5th century BC. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Discobolus: Marble statue of a discus-thrower (discobolus) by Myron. Roman copy of a bronze Greek original of the 5th century BC. © The Trustees of the British Museum

The exhibition’s approach

Greek art and its importance in the tradition of Western Art is a vast, a never-ending and potentially exhausting subject, so this exhibition comes as a relief in several ways: it is not chronological (there are a few handy maps but no chronology) and it does not set out to be exhaustive (two sides of the same approach). (Not being chronological it admittedly doesn’t have the drama, the excitement, of following the evolution of statuary (and what painting survives) through the ancient Egyptians, the other empires of the East, via the primitive art of the Cyclades, and into the sudden efflorescence of the Body Beautiful in 5th century Athens.)

Instead, the show is a) based on themes and b) very selective, showcasing a relatively small number of perfect works, each chosen to demonstrate aspects of the themes, surrounded by a number of lesser pieces designed to give context.

The exhibition doesn’t in fact define beauty: it quotes some of the many Greek thinkers’ words about beauty, and invokes various ideas in the wall signs and the audio-commentary. But these are all fragments, angles, approaches. Helpful, but not definitive. You are left to ponder.

The human body as embodiment of social values

For me the biggest new thing I learned was the notion that the Greeks used the human body to make sense of the world. The human form embodied their values, and the quest for the Perfect and perfectly balanced, rational, harmonious human body, embodied the search for those moral, political and philosophical values.

The human body as embodiment of the universe

I sort of knew the above, but I had never explicitly encountered the related idea, that the human form embodies the Greeks’ sense of destiny and fate and of the forces of the universe.

It is through the human body that we understand the major events in human life (there is a gallery devoted to rites of passage, depictions of birth, marriage and death as, obviously enough, depicted by the body because these are obviously bodily events) but also the forces external to us, the forces of nature, the fierceness of the sun, the fury of storms, and so on.

It was through the human body that they thought about not only human perfection, but human destinies, and the impersonal forces which act on all of us. The body was like a tool for thinking about the world with.

So, for example, the basic human urge to anthropomorphise everything around us (to lend them human attributes, to assign motive and agency to a tree, a key, a car, the kettle, particularly to anything which resists or obstructs us) results, for the Greeks, in myths and legends where human bodies epitomise those forces – where human bodies change shape into animals and other elements of nature.

At a stroke this attitude – the human body as a vehicle for explaining of the world – made sense of all those many Greek stories of metamorphosis, where a young man or woman turns into a reed or a flower or a bull or a tree.

Perfection and power

There is a hierarchy of the universe with humans near its peak and the gods-who-take-human-shape at its apex. But these gods aren’t invisible and unknowable like the Jewish god, or crude warriors as in Near Eastern religion, they are people like you and me except of perfect power; and this power is expressed in their perfect bodies. The two are inextricably blended. Bodily perfection is a kind of power.

Marble statue of a naked Aphrodite crouching at her bath, also known as Lely’s Venus. Roman copy of a Greek original, 2nd century AD. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2015

Marble statue of a naked Aphrodite crouching at her bath, also known as Lely’s Venus. Roman copy of a Greek original, 2nd century AD. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2015

The commentary dwelt on the fact that these images of Aphrodite are extraordinary for the ancient world. No other culture showed its women naked and, of course, real Greek women were kept covered in swathes of cloth and locked up at home. But such was their love of the Perfect Body that depictions of the goddesses breached all social etiquette and showed them stark naked but powerful. Mortals (men, generally) who offended against the purity of their nudity always died harrowing deaths. We should be frightened of their perfection.

Why here?

In all the other cultures anywhere in the world at the time (5th, 4th, 3rd centuries BC) various types of limited and stylised images of the human body sufficed for their purposes (religion, political power). Of all the cultures of the world, it was only the ancient Greeks who invented a naturalistic account of the human body, depicting it as it actually appears (albeit in an idealised and perfect form). Why? Ancient Greece was the only culture in the ancient world to depict its gods nude and the only culture to depict full nudity at all. Why? Why this extraordinary achievement?

The Ideal

Greek philosophy is awash with the notion of the Ideal. Plato’s writings about Socrates show him developing the idea that behind this fallen world lies a world of Perfect Forms, created by a Perfect Being. The entire practice of Greek art didn’t stem from his philosophy, the reverse: his philosophy derived from a culture seeking perfection of mind and body. A culture which sought the Ideal, perfection, in all areas of life – in politics, in philosophy, in morality, in warfare, in everyday behaviour.

Contrapposto to display harmony

Balance. Pythagoras and his school expounded the importance of the Golden Mean. Aristotle said the chief forms of beauty are order, symmetry and clear delineation. This idea is embodied in the pose which Italian critics 1,500 years later named Contrapposto – a pose where all the weight of a body is placed on one foot and leg, thus allowing the other leg and hip and the torso to be turned, to appear to be moving, yet poised. The contrapposto position is a vast distance in sophistication and technical achievement from the fixed, hieratical posture of Egyptian statuary. The commentary suggested it is the embodiment of the rational self-contained man, moving through three dimensions yet self-knowing, controlled, ideal.

The old saying goes that all philosophy is footnotes to Plato; this exhibition suggests that all Western art – and maybe our entire attitude to the human body – is footnotes to the Greek achievement.

The ideal man – a young warrior

Though we like to think of them as the fons et origo of Reason, the ancient Greeks were in fact in a state of almost continual warfare: hence the cultural fascination with the ideal young male body, the body of the athlete and warrior. (Note the contrapposto pose.)

Reconstruction, by Georg Roemer, of the 3rd century BC Greek bronze Doryphoros, or ‘Spear bearer’, of Polykeitos of Argos. 1920-21. © DAI German Archaeological Institute

Reconstruction, by Georg Roemer, of the 3rd century BC Greek bronze Doryphoros, or ‘Spear bearer’, of Polykeitos of Argos. 1920-21. © DAI German Archaeological Institute

Though Greeks wore clothes in everyday life, their athletes trained naked, demonstrating to themselves, their instructors and onlookers their fitness. But not only physical fitness; that fitness was achieved to support an ideal, to be a warrior for the city. Physical fitness – outward physical perfection – reflected internal moral virtue.

I went to the gym the evening before visiting the exhibition and had in my mind the men in the weights room working out for themselves, for the cameraderie of the activity and continually checking how they look – I’ve always thought the most important piece of equipment in a gym is the mirror. There is a tremendous self-consciousness in the Greek cultivation of the Body in art and life which is echoed today.

Arete was the ancient Greek word for youthful excellence, and kouros the name for the perfect young man. God, there were some beautiful, gorgeous male bodies on display, illustrating the ideals of balance and proportion. And I realised they were making me aspire. I know I can’t look like them but I wanted to reach out and touch these perfect images, to stroke the cold stone. Was that a permissible feeling in Greek times? Or would it have been blasphemy punished by madness and death, as in so many of the myths?

Physical challenge

The audio-commentary featured a (woman) journalist from the magazine Men’s Health who brought up the importance of challenge to men, to young men, of physical challenge, activity which tests us: from army training to triathlons. This (presumably deep biological urge) is strongly present in Greek art, and there is a section dedicated to a selection of Greek vases illustrating its embodiment in the legend of the Twelve Labours of Herakles.

Statues of the ancestors

Statuary had a strong moral and social meaning: the halls of Roman houses contained rows of statues of the family ancestors looking down and judging and guarding. I had the same sensation walking past a bust of Herakles positioned on a column a few feet above head level, staring out and down with an eerily imperious blankness. Watching. Judging from his position of youthful physical perfection, the shabby elderly crowd shuffling past his gaze.

Colour

Always comes as a shock to the unwary that the statues were vividly painted. One room is devoted to the different ways they were decorated, copper or bronze statues obviously having the colour of their material but often with different metal inserts to create contrast. The marble statues we see in their cool white perfection, were in fact always colourfully painted and sometimes draped in lifelike fabrics.

A vivid example is given of the Lycian archer – for centuries thought to be a wonderful example of plain white marble statuary and only in recent times conclusively shown to have been highly decorated in a harlequin-like design of blue, red and green lozenges on his arms, legs and quiver.

The threat of chaos

If the Ideal was one of Balance and Reason, then that Ideal is continually threatened in real life by the Irrational, the Violent, the Anarchic. And since the Greeks translated meaning into bodies, morality into human shape – the Greeks embodied the irrational and anarchic as satyrs and maenads, centaurs, and innumerable monsters, the Minotaur or Cyclops or Harpies. Because this exhibition partly exists to highlight items from the British Museum’s collection, it was an opportunity to demonstrate this with the metopes decorating the south wall of the Parthenon, part of the collection notoriously known as the Elgin Marbles. These metopes, the panels lining the greatest architectural achievement of their civilisation, depict in great detail an embodiment of just this struggle – the legendary battle between the Lapiths (a human tribe) and the centaurs (half man, half horse), after the drinking at a wedding party got disastrously out of hand. An embodiment of the forces of Unreason and Anarchy which are always lurking in the universe and in human society.

Marble metope from the Parthenon (South metope XXXI). The South metopes in the British Museum show the battle between Centaurs and Lapiths at the marriage-feast of Peirithoos. Designed by Phidias, Athens, Greece, 438BC-432BC. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Marble metope from the Parthenon (South metope XXXI). The South metopes in the British Museum show the battle between Centaurs and Lapiths at the marriage-feast of Peirithoos. Designed by Phidias, Athens, Greece, 438BC-432BC. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Small penises

I’ve always wondered about the relatively small penises of so many of the classic statues, odd in artefacts devoted to Perfection. This exhibition explained what I should have known years ago, that the genitals are small to downplay the (disruptive) erotic power of the image and to promote the moral aspect of having a fine body. Same goes for the women’s breasts, which are notably different from the plump peardrop shape we are fed by modern media in countless newspapers, magazines and movies, and are smaller and more like symmetrical and perfectly round hillocks.

Oversexed

Talking of sex, there was a conversation on the audio-commentary where the main narrator mentioned the genitals bulging out from the loose folds of a man being hacked down in a frieze selected to demonstrate the importance of clothes and nudity in depictions of battle. Interestingly, the expert he was interviewing gently suggested that the comment was a mite ‘oversexed’. As I found at the Goya exhibition, it is all too easy to make sexual interpretations of images from the past, living as we do in a sex-obsessed, 50 Shades of Grey society, and therefore often failing to take account of the relative unimportance of sex for other and earlier cultures, and the far more dominating ethics of religious belief, social conformity, ancestral values, folk practice and contemporary (and now largely vanished) references.

Blank faces to the invention of ‘character’

The pursuit of the Ideal meant blank faces. It is striking how many statues have coldly perfect, impassive features. The interest in character, at first shown through the development of stock ‘types’, is a later development, only really flourishing in Roman statuary from the 2nd and 1st centuries BC. Thus, this characterful statue of Socrates, is late, Hellenistic (ie from the broadly-based Greek culture which spread around the Mediterranean basin after the death of Alexander 323 BC.)

Marble statuette of Socrates. A Hellenistic original of the 2nd century BC, or a Roman copy, Alexandria, Egypt. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Marble statuette of Socrates. A Hellenistic original of the 2nd century BC, or a Roman copy, Alexandria, Egypt. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Alexander understood the power of the image, had busts of himself done all over his Empire, a strategy copied by the Roman emperors and pretty much every Western ruler ever since, from Charlemagne to Charles de Gaulle.

The legacy

Most ancient Greek statues of the human body were destroyed – most of our knowledge about them comes from numerous Roman copies. These were discovered, rescued and preserved during the Renaissance, which enshrined the Greek idea of the perfect body at the heart of Western art and culture.

The exhibition ends with two of the greatest hits from the Greek tradition which have had a seismic affect on Western Art: the Belvedere Torso and Dionysos from the Parthenon. These enormous fragments of superhumanly muscled men were described and praised by Michelangelo, widely seen as the peak and acme of the Renaissance, who thought the torso the finest fragment of classical sculpture that could be seen in his day. It’s certainly the most Michelangelesque.

Belvedere Torso, 1st century BC. Vatican, Museo, Pio-Clementino. © 2015. Photo Scala, Florence

Belvedere Torso, 1st century BC. Vatican, Museo, Pio-Clementino. © 2015. Photo Scala, Florence

The semi-ruined nature of these big blocks of stone has two results:

  • It makes them more abstract – 100 years after the birth of Modernism we can see the lines of the breasts, the mid line between the ribs, the crease along the top of the diaphragm as almost cubist explorations of planes and forms, abstract squares and rectangles, allowing us to see the abstract buried in the flesh.
  • Their ruined state allows us in – encourages the viewer to complete the image, to remake it ourselves and this enables us to inhabit the work of art, to identify with it. There is no doubt these fragments, although intimidatingly large, are not intimidatingly perfect. They don’t have the icy perfection of the Aphrodites form earlier in the show. They will not kill us with a glance.

By not taking the chronological and didactic route, this exhibition successfully sheds light on and opens up new ideas about the great artists who shaped the way we think about what it is to be human, what it is to inhabit a body, to this day. It doesn’t really explain what beauty is – I suspect that is a vast and impossible task. Many details of what is ‘beautiful’ have changed over the centuries and our ideal body shapes today are not quite the same as these, as noted above.

What it does do is explain the power and importance of the notion of the Beautiful Body, the reason why we find the perfect form so haunting, so dominating in our thinking about ourselves.

For the first time I really understand what it means to say these statues give form to thought. They are not just bodies. They are ideas. The most perfect, balanced and rational ideas humanity has ever had. And that is why the importance of body shapes endures: it is central to our civilisation and impossible to escape.

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