View: Greeks focused on formulaic beauty

THE Body Beautiful in Ancient Greece exhibition features more than 120 objects from the renowned collection of the British Museum, which tell the story of the representation of the body throughout several centuries of ancient Greek culture.

Strangford Apollo, parian marble statue of a boy. Said to be from Anaphe, Cyclades, Greece, about 490 BC. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Strangford Apollo, parian marble statue of a boy. Said to be from Anaphe, Cyclades, Greece, about 490 BC. © The Trustees of the British Museum

The tradition of Greek sculpture up to the Classical period (5th-4th century BC) was the portrayal of a formulaic beauty.  

A beautiful body was considered to be a representation of perfection and this ideal was presented in a generalised form, comprised of specific attributes that were employed by all sculptors. 

This ideal was carried through to life, with young men, athletes, aspiring to mould their bodies to match those created in bronze and marble.  

It was considered that the outward attributes of beauty truly reflected the values of the day – the inner qualities of excellence and honour.

The kouros for example, which is Greek for ‘‘youth’’, was a conventional standing male figure, with set elements of its presentation maintained throughout centuries of development. 

The once angular lines may have softened as musculature was better portrayed; facial features and other details may have become more refined and realistic; and yet, the blueprint of stance, proportion, and balance endured. 

Women were similarly portrayed; certain poses only were used, with the vehicle of the goddesses often used as a means of displaying the nude female form.  

Otherwise, a woman would be represented in clothing; while the naked male body was a representation of an ideal aesthetic, women’s bodies did not hold the same importance and it was seen to be improper.

While such formal representations of accepted beauty remained a mainstay of Greek visual culture, by 500 BC the growth of the empire around the Mediterranean, from Egypt to North Africa to the south of France saw the Greeks absorb a broader world view.

Artists began to look beyond purely capturing the epitome of ideal beauty, to depict aspects of the broader human experience. 

They explored expression and emotion, along with the myriad options that come with individual character, age, body shape, race and profession. 

Children were captured fighting, laughing and playing.  Old people were shown with hunched statures, paunches and wrinkles. 

Told in ten chapters across eight galleries, The Body Beautiful in Ancient Greece runs until 9 November.  

See www.bodybeautifulbendigo.com for information on ticketing and more.

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