The nude sculptures of the ancient Greeks depict what they believed to be the perfect human form, and the results still dazzle and move us thousands of years on, as the British Museum’s latest exhibition demonstrates.
“Defining Beauty” is a stunning array of sculptures and ceramics that includes some of the most familiar works of Greek antiquity.
The exhibition also compares how other cultures treated the human form and their attitudes to nudity, from the Mayans to the Assyrians.
“The Greeks invented the human being,” Ian Jenkins, the exhibition’s curator, said, pointing to Greek philosophy, mythology and democracy, not just the aesthetics of the sculptures that dominate the exhibition.
The exhibition opens with the striking view of a nude goddess Aphrodite from behind. When visitors walk around the statue, they are met with her guarded, threatening gaze.
Though Greek in origin, she is a Roman copy. So is the discus thrower, Myron’s Diskobolos, a study in the perfect «balance of opposites», and some of the other statues in the exhibition.
But museum does display its own prized Greek originals which are the source of a long-running dispute with Greece. Athens has repeatedly called for the return of marble statues from the Parthenon, known as the “Elgin Marbles”, which were taken from Greece in 1816.
The Greek government protested angrily at the end of last year when the museum loaned one of them to Russia.
Officials at the British Museum acknowledge the difficulty in managing relations with Greece, who did not loan any items to the museum for the exhibition.
Part of the Parthenon’s frieze and the statue of Ilissos, recently returned from Russia, are on display and are a highlight of the exhibition.
Its last piece is Pheidias’s Dionysos, the Greek god of wine, theater and religious ecstasy. The statue is placed next to a red chalk drawing of a man, drawing attention to the resemblance between the two reclining figures.
The sketch in question is Study for Adam by Michelangelo as he prepared to paint his famous fresco on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Next to Dionysos, it is clear where the Italian master drew his inspiration from, consciously or not, more than a millennium later. [Reuters]