Christo­pher Allen goes in search of beau­ti­ful bod­ies in Bendigo

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Christo­pher Allen

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


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)

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.