Exhibit: The Body Beautiful in Ancient Greece

"Man is the measure of all things."  So said the Ancient Greek scholar Protagoras in the mid-5th century BC and his statement rings true in the current exhibit at the Portland Art Museum: The Body Beautiful in Ancient Greece.

There are over 100 objects from Ancient Greece, all from the British Museum in London.  There is a focus on Classical (510-323 BC) and Hellenistic (323-146 BC) Greek art, but the objects are from a wide variety of eras and locations.  Included was a Cycladic figure from c.-2,500 BC as well as Etruscan and Roman objects.  The emphasis is on the human figure, shown in a wide variety of forms, including life-size marble sculpture, painted amphoras, small bronze figurines and plaster casts of famous marble sculptures such as The Spear Bearer by Polykleitos.  The exhibit is broken up into several sections such as: The Male Body Beautiful, Aphrodite and the Female Body, The Divine Body, Athletes, Birth, Marriage and Death, Sex and Desire and The Human Face. 

Townley Discobolus, original by Myron 450-440BC
Roman copy from 2nd cen AD

Much of what we know of Greek sculpture today is due to the surviving Ancient Roman copies of originals.  Ancient Greek sculptors made many of their most beautiful sculptures from bronze, however they were later melted down to reuse the valuable metal.  Many of the works in The Body Beautiful were later Roman copies of Greek art from the 1st and 2nd centuries AD.

One of the things I found to be really interesting was in reading about the famous Discobolus from the British Museum.  The bronze original from 450-440 BC was created by a Greek sculptor named Myron and has never been found.  Today there are several Roman copies that did survive, the one in the British Museum is known as the "Townley Discobolus" and the head is actually from a different Roman sculpture.  The two were both found broken and it was incorrectly assumed that they went together.  Also the head was attached facing the wrong way, it should in fact be looking at the arm that is about to throw the discus.  The Townley sculpture was excavated from the Emperor Hadrian's villa in Tivoli outside of Rome in the late 18th century.  The Discobolus is rather unique as the figure is in motion instead of standing still.

Victorious Athlete, Roman Copy c.-1st cen. A.D 
from the original 430 B.C, British Museum

Another figure also from the Classical period is known as the Victorious Athlete (pictured above).  His static standing form is more typical and his ideal form and beauty are hallmarks of this time in art.  This is a good example of Ancient Greek art from the Classical Period as it has an emphasis on perfect beauty and harmony seen through the body of a muscular young athlete. 

As the wall text says in the exhibit-
"The realism of 5th century BC Athenian art tended to generalize human types.  Artists set out to represent the values of the city (polis) and its ruling class of soldier citizens, rather than to portray individuals."

Bust of Aphrodite, Roman copy of original from 360 BC

The same was true of idealized gods and goddesses.  There were many variations on the perfect beauty of the Venus (Aphrodite in Greek) type, but they all had in common a type of portrait or figure showing the perfect beauty of the eternally young Venus, nearly always shown nude.  The 4th century BC sculptor Praxiteles in particular was renowned for his skill in creating the ideal female body through his many Aphrodite figures.

 Part of a sculpture of two boys fighting over a game of knucklebones, Roman, 1st cen BC

The above sculptural fragment is of a decidedly different style, that of Hellenism.  When Alexander the Great expanded the Greek empire into Asia Minor there was a cross cultural shift in styles and upon his death in 323 BC the period known as Hellenism began.  Rather than the "perfect beauty and harmony" found in the earlier Classical Style, Hellenistic art focuses on the individual and becomes more naturalistic.  While Classical Greek art was "realistic" in the sense that it appeared convincingly real, naturalistic refers to observing life in nature rather than the ideal.  Examples include bodies that are aging, grotesque, scrawny or obese rather than the perfect ideal youthful athletes, heroes and gods of the previous century.

Another characteristic of Hellenism is that it often took a humorous or dramatic turn such as the fragment above of two boys fighting during a gambling game.  Still in this work the ever present theme of "the body" is on display with the surviving figure's interestingly contorted pose.

The Sphinx of Lanuvium, British Museum, 120-140 AD

The following text is taken from the Portland Art Museum's website-

October 6, 2012 – January 6, 2013

The Body Beautiful in Ancient Greece explores the human form through exquisite objects from the British Museum’s famed collection of Greek and Roman sculptures. This collection rarely travels due to its size and value.  London’s British Museum is one of the oldest and most celebrated museums in the world with a collection of more than seven million objects exploring human history and culture from its beginnings to the present.

Organized by the British Museum and curated by Director Brian Ferriso for its presentation in Portland. The exhibition is accompanied by a full color catalog.

This Exhibition has been made possible by the collaboration of the British Museum and
Portland Art Museum.

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