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Defining Beauty: the body in ancient Greek art

24 April 2015 | Laura Stevens

Defining Beauty: the body in ancient Greek art at The British Museum is a tour de force in Greek art with the work exploring how to the ancient world the body was a thing of beauty to be worshiped.

Coyly looking over her shoulder and entreating you forward is Aphrodite, caught naked while bathing. And how could you resist such an invitation from the Greek goddess of love beautifully carved out of marble?

Delving further inside you realise you’re at a rather exclusive party – only the most beautiful have been allowed in. The British Museum has made Defining Beauty: the body in ancient Greek art an unmissable event with 150 objects dedicated to exploring the Greek’s fascination with the human body.

Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum said: “This exhibition will be a celebration of the beauty and ideals of ancient Greek art.

“Some of the most beautiful works in the world will be brought together for the first time in a narrative exploring the highest achievements of ancient Greek artists and philosophers, exploring what it is to be human.”

To the ancient Greeks the body was a thing of beauty, and the naked body a demonstration of physical and moral excellence. Defining Beauty takes the viewer through these models of perfection and examines how sculpture evolved and developed, and the enduring influences of the Greek masters.

Defying the idea of Greek sculpture as pale and lipid are the colourful objects that depict how the ancients would have seen the art. Contemporary the works of art would be brightly coloured and painted, a shock to modern eyes that are used to the sacred marble white artworks.

Another defiant move by the British Museum is the unabashed promotion of six Parthenon sculptures. Perhaps more commonly known as the Elgin’s Marbles, there is ongoing controversy about why these artworks are in the British Museum with the Greek government repeatedly demanding their return since the 1980s.

Here said masterpieces are proudly displayed, and their mastery highlighted through their removal from the museum’s permanent Parthenon gallery.

The inclusion of other earlier works of arts highlights what E.H. Gombrich termed “the great awakening” where Greek artists shook up the rules and formality of their predecessors. Demonstrating this lack of rigidity are the stunning sculptures with their drapery evoking the body underneath where the artists are no longer struggling with depicting movement.

Having a basic knowledge of Greek mythology is helpful for interpreting the artistry of the pots on display. Hercules is repeatedly shown performing his 12 labours and the story of Troy is depicted in tragic detail.

Defining Beauty truly demonstrates the ancient Greek belief of the body as a thing of beauty and bearer of meaning. In fulfilment of Protagoras’ statement “Man is the measure of all things”, the works of art here represent every aspect of mortal and divine experience.

Defining Beauty: the body in ancient Greek art is on at The British Museum from 26 March to 5 July. For more information click here.

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