Greek Art: Scouting for beauty in marble and plaster
Later next month the British Museum opens its blockbuster exhibition of Greek sculpture, Defining Beauty: The Body in Ancient Greek Art. Sidestepping the likes of Roland Barthes, who argued that “Beauty (unlike ugliness) cannot really be explained: in each part of the body it stands out, repeats itself, but does not describe itself…it can only say ‘I am what I am’ ”, the show will take our obsession with the body (think of the prolific rise of the selfie) and explore how the Ancient Greeks invented the modern idea of the human body in art as an object of sensory delight, a thing of beauty, and a bearer of meaning.
Among the objects on display there will be iconic white marble statues (including the Belvedere Torso, on loan from the Vatican Museum, and six of the Elgin marbles), terracottas, bronzes, and vases, all demonstrating how Greek sculptors strove to create ideal human forms which transcended reality but remained powerfully lifelike.
The Ancient Greeks celebrated the male body by representing their male gods, heroes and mortals naked, but whereas the naked male body was often desexualised, female nudity was almost always highly sexually charged – think of all those decidedly carnal statues of Aphrodite, which conspire to draw attention to every single one of her curves.
To many, it can seem as if different eyes are required to study Greek sculptures, so if you are going to admire the Greek body beautiful it helps to know a bit about the language of Ancient Greek art. For those short on time, my top tip would be to remember five key words – balance, rhythm, proportion, harmony and symmetry. Whether you are looking at schematic early Greek images of the male body, such as the kouros type (note those developed biceps and pectoral muscles or the wasp waist and flat stomach), more relaxed figures like the Kritios Boy, or sculptures that have become emblematic of ideal beauty (for example the Discobolus, or discus thrower), having these five terms in your mental art dictionary will really make a difference when it comes to spotting significant little details.
If you want to put your sculpture reading skills to the test but cannot make it to the British Museum (or you baulk at the ticket price!), a fantastic free alternative is to visit a cast gallery. (In the UK, try the Edinburgh Cast Collection, Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, the Cambridge Museum of Classical Archaeology or London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.) Full of plaster casts of the most famous statues of Ancient Greece and Rome, these collections are an important learning resource in drawing, painting, and art history.
The fortunes of cast collections have fluctuated according to changing perceptions about their educational function and current art fashions, with the value of casts hitting rock bottom in the mid-twentieth century with the Modernist rejection of bodily beauty and realism, and advocacy of ‘art for art’s sake’, which saw cast collections tagged as suppressors of the creative imagination.
So why casts? Why not just use photography to explore the shapes and forms of Graeco-Roman sculpture? The answer is simple – because cast galleries give you a chance to really engage with a context of physical history that you may not often get. Plaster casts function not as mere objects. They are resonators through space and time. On a practical level, cast drawing can teach you fundamental principles such as how to block in efficiently, and how to understand the effect of light on form or identify values accurately. By focusing on casts, by spending time with them, drawing them, you can make discoveries and have that lightbulb moment where you see a connection you have never seen before.
Coming face-to-face with a cast is an education and, as a sort of textbook in 3D, cast collections continue to be vital sources of thought and imagery. Take a walk through myth-as-material-culture and enjoy working from casts…those Ancient Greeks have never looked so beautiful.
Defining Beauty: The Body in Ancient Greek Art, 26 March – 5 July, British Museum, London
Marble statue of a naked Aphrodite crouching at her bath. Roman copy of a Greek original, 2nd century AD. © The British Museum
Marble statue of a Discus-thrower (Discobolus) by Myron. Roman copy of a bronze Greek original of the 5th century BC. © The British Museum
The Cast Gallery, Museum of Classical Archaeology, Cambridge