Greek, or Roman, sculpture exhibition in London

This video from the British Museum in London, England is about their exhibition Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art.

By Michal Boncza in England:

Some sincerest forms of flattery

Thursday 4th June 2015

Many of the works in an exhibition of ancient Greek sculpture are Roman copies. MICHAL BONCZA explains why

Defining Beauty: The Body in Ancient Greek Art
British Museum, London WC1

HUGELY impressive as it is, this exhibition doesn’t exactly do what it says on the tin.

Many of the large-scale statues on display are in fact Roman replicas produced for a growing internal art market following the cultural pillage carried out by imperial armies conquering Greece in 146 BC.

Millennia later, our very own Lord Elgin engaged in a similar act of vandalism when he looted treasures from the Parthenon in Athens.

Back in Roman times, the bronze originals were often lost or simply melted down for the value of the metal and only a handful of full-sized original Greek statues survive.

Yet there is enough jaw-dropping craftsmanship in evidence here to help understand the impact the Greeks have had over the last 2,500 years, particularly since the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, in Europe and the Western world.

An example is Leon Golub’s Colossal Torso II, shown at the Serpentine gallery recently and the Michaelangelo painting of Adam on the Sistine Chapel ceiling in the Vatican.

They were executed 500 years apart but both were inspired by the same formidable marble figure of Ilisos, the Athenian river god from the west pediment of the Parthenon designed by Phidias.

The Greek sculptors often laboured under the largely misguided concept that a body beautiful will house a corresponding spirit or indeed personality.

Thus, like all excessively idealistic aesthetic canons the sculptures — particularly the Roman marble copies — tend, at times, to schematise or falsify anatomy. This is certainly evident when comparing the Discobolus by Miron or the Westmacott Youth to the partial but still breathtaking magnificence of the Belvedere Torso which, although also a copy, is beautiful in its own right.

The illustrated amphoras intrigue, both for the sculptural qualities inherent in their manufacture and the masterly single-outline rendition of mythological as well as everyday scenes and ornaments, with the ochre background contrasting with the black of the shapes.

Among the myriad of mythical creatures are the usual quarrelsome centaurs kicking the proverbial out of humans and winged gate-keeping sphinxes with rat-like tails.

Smaller items, most of them Greek original pieces, delight.

There’s the 4,500-year-old minimalist marble figurine Woman from the Cyclades and the delightful Running Spartan Girl in a traditional short dress baring one of her breasts.

The one-foot tall and extraordinarily intricate figure of Zeus, the familiar marble figurine of Socrates or the exquisitely balanced statuette of Aphrodite standing on one leg to adjust her sandal are exquisite too.

Yet there’s a jarring absence of historic or social contextualisation, which means that fascinating as this art is a vacuum surrounds important areas of reference such as the sources of patronage or records of the political, scientific and economic realities of the time.

And the activities of Lord Elgin certainly cast a long shadow over the exhibition — not one Greek museum has lent items from their collections to it.

Runs until July 5, box office:

7 thoughts on “Greek, or Roman, sculpture exhibition in London

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