From the realistic to the idealistic

Dr Melissa Atkinson (UWE) reviews a new exhibition at the British Museum, 'Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art'

It’s no secret that our modern western society has a fascination with physical appearance and beauty. From ‘flawless’ models in media advertising to cosmetic surgery via the popularity of TV makeover shows, sweeping dieting and fitness fads… the prevalence of narrow sociocultural ideals for ‘beauty’ and the resulting efforts to achieve them abound. Team the impossibility of these ideals and the ubiquity of their promotion with the underlying message of success and happiness, and we are left with legions of men and women, boys and girls, feeling envious and decidedly less than beautiful. So was it any different some two and a half thousand years ago? Based on this exhibition of ancient Greek sculptures and artwork representing the human body at the British Museum, the answer is both yes, and no.

Walking into the opening room of the exhibition you are immediately struck with the magnificence and detail of the surrounding structures. A naked Aphrodite invites you in and introduces you to her male companions: an athletic bronze statue recently lifted from the ocean near Croatia; the powerful ‘discus thrower’ (Discobolus of Myron) depicting the balance of opposing forces in the body; the precisely proportioned Doryphoros, constructed according to mathematical ratios for the male body; the flowing ‘river god’ in reclining form. The exhibition opens with a bang, and a procession through thematically arranged rooms ensues, each providing snapshots of ancient Greek culture and civilisation and their visual treatise on human beauty.

The exhibition showcases the contribution of the Ancient Greeks in redefining how the human form was represented in art, and thus in popular opinion. In contrast to the highly stylised and stiff depictions common in earlier Egyptian civilisation, where nakedness was associated with shame, the Greeks progressed towards naturalistic and realistic representations of the human body. The naked athletic male form was upheld as a symbol of strength and heroism, highly esteemed qualities in the war times of the day. This resulted in myriad depictions of broad shouldered, narrow waisted, highly toned and strapping muscular men ‘like gods’, of which Hercules reigned supreme.

However, in depicting beauty and virtue through physical strength and perfection, these forms go beyond the realistic to the idealistic, as reflected in a displayed quote from Socrates: ‘in portraying ideal types of beauty...you bring together from many models the most beautiful features of each.’ Not unlike the prolific digital editing used today to create perfection, ancient artists used general features resulting in a narrow and idealised form. And their naturalism, while inspiring, likely served to heighten the disparity with the actual self and create an unattainable goal for the everyman. It appears the Ancient Greeks may have been faced with impossible ideals for male beauty not unlike those faced in today’s society. 

On the other side of the gender divide, human females in their naturalistic form were clothed, in alignment with the presiding view that women should be hidden from public life, with only goddesses and mystical beings shown naked. In contrast to males, the exhibited females highlight the changes in beauty ideals from ancient Greek to modern western society. The solid bodies of Aphrodite and Athena, with curves and rounded bellies, contrast the currently prevailing thin-ideal; the depictions of mothers, friends, and warriors encouragingly emphasising function as well as form. It is good to be reminded that expectations of female beauty were not always as unattainable as they are today.

Interestingly, a series of busts shows a later move away from generalised features of beauty towards more representation of diversity and individuality, including and appreciating a variety of ages and facial appearances. This is fittingly included alongside a quote from Piny the Elder (AD 79), ‘to think that among all the thousands of human beings there exist no two faces that are not distinct.’ Hear hear!

‘Defining beauty’ is an impressive and enjoyable exhibition, which elicits an appreciation for the skill and artistry of the ancient Greeks, and an admiration for the human body. Nevertheless, the focus on idealised perfection begs the question: will there ever be a time where individuality and diversity in appearance are celebrated for both males and females?

- Reviewed by Dr Melissa Atkinson, Research Fellow at the Centre for Appearance Research, University of the West of England

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