Christopher Allen goes in search of beautiful bodies in Bendigo
The Body Beautiful in Ancient Greece Bendigo Art Gallery, Bendigo, Victoria, on loan from the British Museum, to November 2.
XENOPHANES, the pre-Socratic philosopher from Colophon, mused that if we didn’t have honey we could consider figs the sweetest of foods. The reflection is not only a memorable illustration of his relativistic and sceptical doctrine but reminds us that the Greeks did not have sugar. Nor therefore did they have any of the sugar-sweetened junk foods and especially cola and other fizzy drinks that are the main dietary causes of obesity.
The ancient Greeks had the benefit of the original Mediterranean diet, without any of the fruits and vegetables that were brought back 2000 years later from the new world, above all potatoes and tomatoes. And they were free of more pernicious imports from the Americas: syphilis returned with Columbus’s sailors at the end of the 15th century and was first recognised during the French siege of Naples; tobacco was chewed at first, and smoking became fashionable at the court of Elizabeth I.
So the Greeks did not have the venereal disease that swept Europe in the 16th century, putting an end to the Renaissance rediscovery of the joy of sex and underscoring the Christian message of guilt and sin. Nor could they have the same incidence of cancer — or for that matter of tooth decay — without tobacco and sugar. But it is particularly interesting to reflect that without cane sugar, it is nearly impossible to grow really fat.
The Greek diet in the classical period included a modest amount of meat — compared to the palaeo carnivorousness of the Homeric heroes — because larger animals were usually killed and eaten only in the context of sacrifices and the communal feasts that ensued. The daily diet would include fowl, fish, eggs, vegetables, salads, cheese, oil and vinegar, wine (they had no spirits) and bread. In fact, as in Mediterranean food to this day, a meal was conceived in binary terms as composed of bread ( sitos) and the variety of dishes eaten with it ( opson).
Greek medicine was sophisticated, although they did not have antibiotics and could not perform the kinds of operations that are routine today. They also thought of disease as arising from a breakdown in the body’s constitution rather than as caused by the invasion of external pathogens, so the emphasis was on prevention, including diet and exercise. It seems, for example, that a digestive walk after dinner was recommended.
One of the most common misconceptions about the past is that everyone was old or dead by the age of 40 — a textbook case of misleading statistics. Infant mortality was high in all cultures until very recent times, and it is not hard to see that if one individual lives to 80 and another dies at birth, you arrive at an average figure of 40 — which, however, corresponds to neither lifespan.
War and epidemics could take their toll too, yet one can easily cite the approximate ages of Aeschylus (69), Sophocles (91), Euripides (74), Plato (80), Aristotle (62) or Theophrastus (84); Socrates died at 71, but he was executed. Perhaps most telling is the fact men were considered fit for military call-up in times of war until the age of 65.
The training of the body, gymnastike, was an integral part of the Greek conception of education, the other two being grammata (reading and writing) and mousike, including literature and music. All of these were part of the culture of a good citizen, who had to be fit and strong as well as intelligent and wise. And all this was subsumed under a conception of beauty summed up by the word kalokagathia, a fusion of the ideas of goodness and beauty.
This is largely the focus of a remarkable British Museum loan exhibition at Bendigo Art Gallery. There are very beautiful examples of black and red-figure vases, exquisite statuettes and many other objects of great interest, but the main focus of the exhibition, as its title asserts and as its culmination in Myron’s great Discobolus would in any case suggest, is on the idea of the beauty of the human body. The Greeks, as I have observed before, were the first to conceive of the body as beautiful — something we tend to take for granted, having inherited the idea through its rediscovery in the Renaissance. But this is something more than the universal human response to other bodies as sexually desirable, undesirable or even repellent.
The Greeks were just as sexually responsive to bodies as anyone else, but they conceived of something above and beyond that animal level of appetite: they saw that the beauty and harmony of the body could be the visible manifestation of a deeper moral beauty and equilibrium. Beauty became the symbol of everything we mean by humanism: belief in the
capacity of man to be autonomous, virtuous and harmonious.
Appropriately, an exhibition concluding with the Discobolus opens with an Archaic
Kouros, for it is here that the ideal of beauty begins to be formed. Until 100 years ago, kouroi were regarded as little more than primitive forerunners of the classical ideal, but as Elizabeth Prettejohn pointed out recently in a brilliant study, The Modernity of Ancient Sculpture, modernist interest in early sculpture opened our eyes to the immense contained power of these figures.
One of the vital developments we can see in this fine example is the beginning of the definition of the torso. This is something that really struck me while looking recently at some very fine little wooden figures from about 1500. The German carver, who had no idea of the body as beautiful and had inherited the medieval assumption that it was tainted with sin, represented the human trunk as divided into two distinct masses, a puny chest and a swollen belly.
The figure was thus deprived of formal wholeness, and its basest and ugliest features were emphasised, evoking the pitiful state of man trapped in an inveterately corrupt body. Likewise, in other artistic traditions and even in the costumes used in Greek comic theatre, the
THE ANCIENT GREEKS HAD THE BENEFIT OF THE ORIGINAL MEDITERRANEAN DIET
belly is emphasised to make figures appear ugly or ridiculous.
In contrast, the earliest Archaic sculptures eliminate the belly altogether in their quest for beauty. As we can see here in a little Etruscan bronze figurine, the middle part of the body disappears into a wasp waist and the hips run almost directly into the legs. All that remains of the pelvic girdle in the earliest kouroi is the pair of thin lines marking the inguinal ligament, extending from the iliac crest down to the pubic bone and composing, with the inverted V form of the thoracic arch, a kind of diamond pattern.
Any departure from the strictly upright posture of the kouroi demanded an understanding of the pelvic girdle as a horizontal axis that could be tilted with the dropping of weight on to one leg, and that is what we can begin to see in the later kouroi, like this one, known as the Strangford Apollo, and the one from Miletus in the Louvre that inspired Rainer Maria Rilke’s famous poem Archaic Torso of Apollo (1908).
The Miletus figure is perhaps 10 years later, and the formal evolution more pronounced, but here we already find the hips growing wider and the significance of the external oblique muscles being more fully recognised. In the earliest figures, the only way to deal with the problem of the belly was to eliminate it; now it is subordinated to a new conception of the torso as a single strong and yet flexible form from shoulders to hips, uniting the shoulder girdle, rib cage and pelvic girdle.
This is the form that becomes so familiar in later classical sculpture and was even imitated in the modelling of suits of armour, so that it came to be known in the academies as the cui
rasse esthetique. We can see it in several permutations in this exhibition, especially as the Hellenistic period admitted a wide range of canons of proportion, from the heavily muscled Heracles type to the more effeminate Dionysus, whose sexual ambiguity is part of his potency as a nature divinity.
In most cases, at least in freestanding sculpture, the classical torso bends or tilts to a moderate degree, dynamic yet graceful and poised. And this is what makes the Discobolus so extraordinary — especially when one considers that it is roughly contemporary with Polycleitus’s Doryphorus, the epitome of powerful but subdued movement.
A marble copy of the Doryphorus — both sculptures were originally in bronze — was discovered at Pompeii in 1797 but not identified as the great and exemplary work of Polycleitus, known from a description in Galen, until 1863. When a marble Discobolus was found in 1781 on the Esquiline Hill, on the other hand, it was at once identified as the work mentioned by Lucian. This sculpture is today at Palazzo Massimo alle Terme in Rome; a second marble copy, from Hadrian’s Villa, was obtained by Charles Townley in 1794, and is the one owned by the British Museum.
The Palazzo Massimo copy was correctly restored with the head looking back, while this one was completed with another antique head, and is incorrectly looking down. It frequently has been observed that the attitude does not correspond exactly to the action of a man who is preparing to throw a discus. As it happens, a particularly ungainly version of the real action is illustrated on a vase in the exhibition.
Here, however, the point is less strict accuracy of action than harmony and equilibrium in the figure. It can be hard to see any work of art that has become overly familiar in an entirely superficial way, and here — as with any sculpture for that matter — the best way to appreciate what is going on is simply to attempt the pose. Many will be surprised to discover how strong a twist is involved, and how hard it can be to twist and maintain balance at the same time.
Those familiar with yoga will find the complex attitude has some affinities with what is known as revolved side-angle pose ( parivrtta
parsvakonasana), or revolved trikonasana, once again intriguingly recalling the important relations between these two cognate cultures, both of which considered mind and body to be intimately associated.
As a paradigm of strength, flexibility and equilibrium in body and in mind, this ancient sculpture still addresses us with silent authority. Rilke felt that the torso from Miletus was challenging him to change his life. As I left the exhibition I passed a large group of corpulent young men and women who could have heeded that call but were too busy taking photographs.
Black-figured Panathenaic amphora depicting athletes c. 530-520BC
From far left, Strangford Apollo (c. 490BC); Discobolus, Roman copy of a bronze original of the 5th century BC; Roman marble sphinx (c. AD120-140)