Defining Beauty – British Museum, May 2015

2015-04-16 16.26.38My footsteps lead me to the British Museum, again. I am having a bad day. I don’t know why I often end up here, maybe it’s the anonymity I find in the huge crowds of people. There is a reminder that there is so much out there to learn about, so many lives, different worlds. Objects that have meanings we can’t always grasp. That urge to create, whether it is for religious meaning, economic value or trade, beauty, fashion and power. I am fascinated by these things we value, these old things. I don’t want to write a blog about an exhibition. I don’t want to write anything. I owe a couple of blogs to different people. I don’t have any time and I have all the time in the world. I think my last few blogs have emptied me out a bit.

I remember a couple of weeks ago saying to someone I began writing these blogs for me and no one else. I think that has changed. I remember just writing blogs about experiences, exhibitions, how I felt and not worrying what other people thought about them. Not caring if anyone read them. Now I think, “will this blog get views?”, “who will read it?”, “will it be interesting?”. I don’t know what I am doing now really. I avoid writing, because writing is becoming a little too honest.

I am typing up notes after visiting the British Museum’s new exhibition. I can tell you that these first two paragraphs aren’t in my notes. Back to the blog, back to the blog. It is my 4th visit to the new exhibition space at the British Museum. Whilst the Vikings was a disappointment, and Ming didn’t quite capture me, Defining Beauty I am very excited about.

I studied Greek religion and politics at university, I have a strong affection for those days when I had nothing more to do than read and study. Dipping into Herodotus, learning about the ‘polis’ – the city-state, marvelling at the mysteries of the oracle at Delphi (partly marvelling at why they listened to the ravings of Pythia who was potentially high on hallucinogenic vapours). The British Museum has always been a magnet that has pulled me in to balance historical text and interpretation with a visual feast for the eyes.

I remember my first visit to the British Museum, I sought out the Elgin Marbles, I searched in vain for a large room which I thought literally displayed giant marbles. I am not sure where that confusion came from, in my defence I was quite young at the time. With this grounding in Greek history, Defining Beauty – the body in ancient Greek art – is destined to draw me in and it does not disappoint.

What I do like about the new exhibition space is every time I visit it feels different. The large expanse gives great flexibility of display, whilst I am still not 100% they are using the space to its best advantage, it is a massive improvement on the Vikings. When you walk in you are exposed to the deliciously sensual buttocks of Aphrodite, it gives a whole new meaning to the words “Does my bum look big in this?”

My eyes cannot leave the soft curves and seductive posing. But this is no flesh and blood temptress, but cold, hard, unforgiving, unyielding marble. It is breath-taking, but it is not the only moment of my complete submission. I am mesmerised by the contrast in soft feminine seduction and the hard muscular power of Myron’s Discobolus. Here the marble is taught, tense, you can feel the power and strength. I am at a complete loss to imagine how the sculptor creates these two completely different visions of beauty from a seemingly  unresponsive material.

The Greeks shaped our ideas of the body, it is fascinating to see the progression from stiff formulaic Egyptian sculpture, forward facing, arms pinioned at the sides to the more relaxed free-flowing forms of the Greek body interpreted. What I find interesting is our modern-day understanding of the ‘body beautiful’. Whilst the male form muscled with ‘six-pack’ is still idealised in our 21st century world, the Greek female curves and softness are not the media prescribed pinnacle of beauty that catwalk models epitomise.

What I love about ‘Defining Beauty’ is the space you are given to wander all the way around sculptures, appreciate them from every angle. They are lit so beautifully, you can see the light and shade, the curves and ripples. The diaphanous robes are brought to life, the shadows cast on the walls and curtains behind the sculptures show forms poised to move, you feel the sculptures are capturing a moment in time, a freeze frame that at any second will begin to move again. Look on the floor and our own forms (less athletically rendered) are replica shadows, we pause for a moment, then move on to examine another stunning form.

Here the sculptures are displaying so much more than physical beauty. They are statements on fitness for battle, on the ‘kalos kai agathos’, the beautiful and the good. Heroic status is bestowed on these marble creatures, their bodies are an aspirational message to the Greek people. I try to think of sculpture today, the 4th plinth in Trafalgar Square, what message do our own contemporary pieces deliver? What would be a good comparison? A David Beckham-esque modern-day hero? When you see such examples of perfection, not just in the physical form but the sculptors skill, it is hard not to feel we are missing out in our own public places, a giant blue cock is not quite cutting the mustard.

For me this exhibition is so much more than ‘Defining Beauty’, it is defining the sculptor’s skill. Showing how hands gifted from the gods using basic tools could create these stunning works. The best bit? You don’t need an ounce of knowledge or understanding to enjoy them. You don’t need to know of gods and heroes, you don’t need to understand Greek religion and politics to be in awe. I find the simple contrast of the male and female form mesmerising. How can marble be made to render muscle and flesh in such a diametrically opposing  way.

What has completely thrown me is the sensuous nature of the marble, the last piece you come to – the Belvedere Torso – inspired Michelangelo. The piece is large, imposing in its physicality. It captures me and I can only imagine how it would capture an artist. On my first visit I stood alone entranced, on my second visit I observe an artist sketching the reclining figure from the Parthenon frieze. They are at eye level with each other, I feel as if I am intruding on an intimate scene. There is such connection between the artist and the sculpture, he is trying so hard to capture the light, the curves, to portray in some small way what he sees before him. I try to imagine the how the stone was worked, how hands smoothed over marble, feeling the way, sensing the shape and form. Surely it must have been an even more intimate relationship between sculptor and subject.

I love this exhibition, I could return again and again. The skill here is undeniable, the body respected, admired, idealistically rendered is mesmerising. But it is the sexuality that I will remember, the power of naked flesh, warm and supple somehow created from cold hard marble. It makes you want to go and create, it inspires you to think, write and if you can, draw and sketch. I can think of no higher praise than an exhibition that sparks that creative compulsion, even if you can never hope to find even the smallest essence of Greek mastery in your own humble offerings.


Defining Beauty is on at the British Museum from 26 March to 5th July 2015 for opening times and ticket prices please see the website

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