Bank Holiday Mondays normally mean snaking queues for everything, not at the British Museum’s “Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art”. This was the loss of others and my gain. Not personally one for Classical Greek art, this compact exhibition is thought provokingly displayed via themes. A goggling treat of beautiful figures.
In the first room five silky-skinned statues tower over viewers. One being the milk coloured discus thrower (discobolus) is a perfect balance of contrasts and nature. Whilst pentathletes (discus-throwing was the first element in the pentathlon) were in some ways considered inferior to those athletes who excelled at an individual sport, their physical appearance was much admired. This was because no one particular set of muscles was over-developed, with the result that their proportions were harmonious. Another figure is of a lady struggling erotically to hold a draped cloth over her soft rolls of skin. The other men stand proud, literally baring all, enough to make David Gandy self-conscious of his figure. Within the first exhibition room, it was clear to me that our contemporary notion of the ideal male body is not a modern media fabrication but an ancient construct of mathematics and athletic heroism.
Unlike many other cultures of its time, in Ancient Greece the nudity was a moral state. In many images featured on ceramics, marble wall decorations and statues, the strong, virtuous and powerful are naked in direct contrast to other cultures where the shamed are humiliated by being literally de-robed. The Greek idea stems from the idolisation of athletes who embodied able protectors and were singled-out talents. Celebrity athletes are nothing new.
As discussed earlier, the male body ideal has been conceived via a mixture of myth and mathematics, especially an impossible obsession with perfect symmetry. The great Aristotle said‘ The chief forms of beauty are order, symmetry and clear delineation’. There is no denying these muscular and lean torsos are nothing but magnificent yet men should take solace in that they are fictional and practically impossible to obtain. You could consider today’s magazine and film images in the same light as few and far between have not been generously edited with Photoshop. I am the first person to advocate ample exercise and clean eating but with male eating and image disorders so dramatically rising and being unrecognised it should emphasised that even our ancestors were cheating and chiselling false bodies. Recent research from the NHS information centre showed that up to 6.4% of adults displayed signs of an eating disorder (Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey, 2007). This research suggested that up to 25% of those showing signs of an eating disorder were male. So be active, enjoy your activity, eat for a better you and be happy with that.
Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art is on at the British Museum from now until 5th July 2015.