Friday, 1 May 2015

'Defining Beauty' at the British Museum

Friday night is late opening at the British Museum so what better way to end the week than to go and see a load of statues of naked lads and lasses from ancient times? 'Defining Beauty: the Body in Ancient Greek Art' is one of the big exhibitions on at the British Museum at the moment and it was nicely busy but not over-crowded so you could wander round and gawp at the old statues at your own pace, linger at some and move on from others. For most you can also walk all the way round so you can see them from every angle.

The first thing you see when you go into the first gallery is a big bum facing the door, Aphrodite's bum to be accurate. It's a very nice bum but it is rather a surprise and Aphrodite is glancing back over her shoulder to see who's just walked in. She's the poster girl for the exhibition but in all the posters you see her from the front (as in the poster above).

It really is a beautiful statue, life-sized and very realistic. Aphrodite is crouching down having a wash, one hand over her left shoulder (you can just see her fingers in the photo opposite) and you can imagine the water dripping down over her body. It's a statue to be enjoyed from all sides and there's a set of four photos below that give you a view from each side. Being able to walk round the statues adds another dimension to the experience, especially when you find a bit of the statue missing that isn't necessarily obvious from the initial view. Thankfully, Aphrodite is all in one piece so that's a good thing!

One of the most famous statues in the exhibition is the discus thrower, the Discobolos (that I want to rename the Discobobulous). It's an image we've all probably seen at some time - it was even used on the poster for the Olympic Games in 1948 in London - but it's different seeing it in the flesh (so to speak).

The notes (always excellent from the British Museum) alongside the statue talk about it being a work of opposites - the tense, outstretched arm contrasting with the relaxed arm, one leg relaxing while the other supports the athlete. That's rather intellectualising it for me. I much prefer to just marvel at the beauty captured from 3,000 years ago and wonder how on earth the sculptor achieved it. Again, you need to walk all round the statue to see it in all it's glory, see the details of the toes, the muscles tensed and relaxed, the curly hair, it's all there.

Some of the statues aren't in the best of repair and some are represented by Roman copies (i.e. only 2,000 rather than the desired 3,000 years plus old). One that really attracted the attention was this headless and largely armless and legless statue of a river god easing out of the river onto the riverbank. One side is full of tense muscles and the other side is relaxed. You can well imagine the sculptor studying the model moving and relaxing to get the musculature just right. How many times, I wonder, did the model (or models) have to struggle to get into the right posture for the sculptor to inspect his body to see the muscles were working and where they were relaxed.

It's a fascinating exhibition with some great works along with lesser works that help to illustrate a development here or an influence there. To show the range of Greek influence after Alexander conquered the world (except Brittania, obv) there's an image of Herakles in a Buddhist tableau and an image of Lord Buddha reflecting the drapery of earlier Greek statues. There is a series of carved heads to show how close the sculptors got to portray reality and a case full of about six small statues of women in various forms of drapery and one lady with a sunhat perched on the top of her head.

There is  also a series of jars and pots of all shapes and sizes with black on red illustrations of famous tales (and some rude ones) - it brought back memories of visiting the Greek Museum in Athens a fews years back and walking through an astonishingly large room filled with hundreds - or possibly thousands - of jars similarly decorated. I like pots!

We were probably in the exhibition for about 1.5 hours but that possibly reflects my slow wandering round and absorbing it. It's well worth seeing. And here is Aphrodite from all sides!

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