The Body Beautiful in Ancient Greece: Masterworks from the British Museum
Dallas Museum of Art
Through October 6, 2013
“Beauty is in the eye of the beer holder” ~ Kinky Friedman
Well if this is true, you might want to down a few before hitting the Dallas Museum of Art’s newest exhibit, The Body Beautiful in Ancient Greece: Masterworks from the British Museum. This rich, heady brew of sculpture, pottery, armor and jewelry is deliciously poured into ten thematic sections, each one a reminder that over thousands of years, humanity’s reverence for physical perfection and outer beauty hasn’t changed much. We certainly still expect our current crop of athletes and celebrities to be physically appealing. But does outer beauty reflect inner beauty? Does physical perfection equal inner goodness? Exploring the Archaic, Classical and Hellenistic periods of Greek art, this important exhibit begs us to question our own ideas of what see as beautiful, with or without our beer goggles.
Dallas Art News owner and editor, Michael Roman, already did good preview of this collection, highlighting the more well-known marbles of Diskobolos and Socrates. Definitely take the time to view each well-known piece and reflect on the dichotomy between these two marble figures: athlete versus philosopher; body versus mind. As the Ancient Greeks became exposed to more cultures after Alexander the Great’s conquests, their male-centric/humanist view of the world began to change. Beauty was no longer limited to physical perfection and proportion. The bulbous nose and chubby body of the doomed philosopher represents the beauty that is found in ideas and in the human condition.
The Human Condition including sexuality, for the Ancient Greeks the sex act was not gender-oriented or even based in love, but represented the importance of the dominant and submissive roles in their male-centric society. The phallus was worshiped as a symbol of not only strength (dominance) and fertility, but also of good fortune. When viewing this exhibit you’ll see various sculptures and amphora reflecting images you may find pornographic, such as the scene depicted on the red-figured drinking cup called Getting into Position, or the black-figured amphora of three homosexual couples flirting with each other (Men Courting Youths). Both the male youth and the women of Ancient Greece were recognized as “passive” in their societal roles. Women in Ancient Greece were property and generally relegated to the roles of wife, mother and/or prostitute. Keeping that in mind, I’ll say that my favorite of the amphora is the vessel of the red-figured woman watering a garden of phalluses (An Unusual Garden). Whether the image was meant as a joke or for good fortune, the cheekiness made me chuckle and wonder what she’d do if she had a lawnmower.
Mowing through this exhibit is not advised; the gods and goddesses you miss will not be pleased. Though a good portion of the statues in this exhibit are early Roman reproductions of the Greek originals in bronze or marble, which have been long-destroyed, plenty of the inhabitants of Mount Olympus are well represented. Emphasis is placed on Heracles, the half-mortal son of Zeus and legendary founder of the Olympic Games. He and the apples of Hesperides greet you as you enter the collection, and his massive head, adorned with perfect curls and features, bids you farewell as you exit. Aphrodite is caught naked exiting her bath, and a young, effeminate Dionysus cozies up to a personification of his favorite plant, a grape vine. Eros strings his bow, preparing to ignite the lusty fire of desire in an unassuming mortal, and Zeus rules all as he aims his scepter and thunderbolt toward the sky. For the Ancient Greeks, man as the center of the universe existed through the human forms of their deities. But although their gods and goddesses were fortified with immortality and superpowers, they were also very human in their emotions, thoughts and behaviors. Like humans, their outer beauty did not always reflect inner beauty.
For whatever reason, The Body Beautiful was a challenging exhibit for me to put to words. I’ve barely touched on the material; the massive amount of history and the artistic significance of each piece can be overwhelming. But, expertly curated by the British Museum’s Dr. Ian Jenkins, OBE, and our own Dr. Anne R. Bromberg, Dallas Museum of Art’s Cecil and Ida Green Curator of Ancient and Asian Art, you’ll have plenty of informative facts to read on a placard next to each piece you view. You’ll even be able to enjoy an architectural model of Olympia as it existed around 100 BC, which I found completely fascinating. Take your time in this exhibit and view it with an open mind. As you leave, reflect on what beauty means to you. You can write that down anonymously on one of the interactive notes provided at the end of the exhibit, or just keep it to yourself. Once you’re home and have caught up on the latest celebrity gossip, the latest sports stats or maybe who in your circle of friends is recovering from some sort of plastic surgery, read some Plato, definitely some Socrates and maybe even some Derrida. Down a Lakewood Brewing Temptress and remember, as Tolstoy once said, “It is amazing how complete is the delusion that beauty is goodness”.