For the Greeks, the human body laid bare the divinity of beauty

by C.B. Liddell

Special To The Japan Times

How many of the artworks being made today will stand the test of time and still be appreciated more than 2,000 years in the future — as the sculptures in “The Body Beautiful in Ancient Greece” exhibition are today? I would say almost none, because, rather than seeking beauty, modern artists are more concerned with novelty, irony, “contemporary relevance,” and shock value.

Not so with the ancient Greeks, as the show at the National Museum of Western Art reveals. The main masterpieces of the show, such as the “Marble statue of a discus thrower (diskobolos)” and “Parian marble statue of Aphrodite” — both Roman-period copies of earlier Greek statues — are works that are infused with a sense of divine perfection that transcends their minor imperfections.

The original of the “discus thrower” was by the fifth-century B.C. Athenian sculptor Myron, famous in antiquity for his daring yet balanced compositions. Perhaps because it is a copy, or possibly because Myron wished to emphasize overall harmony, some critics have found fault with the musculature, which seems to be rather too relaxed in places. Also, the facial expression is said to be rather bland and emotionless. The biggest flaw, however, can’t be blamed on Myron or his copiers. Rather it is the fault of the restorers who repaired the statue after it was excavated from the site of the Emperor Hadrian’s villa at Tivoli in 1790. When they placed the head back on the torso, they positioned facing in the wrong direction!

But, in the presence of this work, such cavils seem irrelevant, because the statue is the result of a sincere pursuit of beauty that started with Myron’s original inspiration and was passed down through his Roman-period copiers to the later mistaken but well-intentioned restorers. In our own age, when “serious artists” make artworks from their own bodily wastes or preserve dead animals in tanks of formaldehyde, we should be less nitpicking about such minor imperfections in works of truly overwhelming beauty.

But why has our modern age so fallen out of love with beauty to the point that it is no longer considered vital to art? This exhibition offers some clues to this great riddle in the ancient Greek notion of beauty, a concept that relied on a combination of sophistication and innocence the modern age seems no longer capable of.

When today’s audiences see a work such as the “Parian marble statue of Aphrodite,” some can’t help being struck by its sexually suggestive elements. Perhaps some of us can’t help seeing it through eyes tainted by the vast amounts of pornographic imagery that modern society offers. This was not how the ancient Greeks saw it.

This statue is a copy of the famous Aphrodite of Cnidus, a statue by another Athenian sculptor, Praxiteles, that served as a cult image for the worship of the goddess depicted. In other words, this was a holy image. To understand how such an apparently saucy sculpture could be associated with the divine, you have to unlearn the centuries of bodily repression that came with Christianity and study the works of the great Greek philosophers of pagan times.

In ancient Greek culture, the human form was the measure of all things, including beauty and the divine. Gods were depicted as being very, very human. By creating beautiful sculptural representations of the naked human body, the ancient Greeks created not only titillating images — thanks to the statue Cnidus, a colony of Sparta in Asia Minor, enjoyed a roaring tourist trade — but also expressed transcendent spiritual ideas.

This symbiosis between the physical and the divine can also be traced in the ideas of the philosopher Plato. He believed that Eros, a godly combination of passionate love and sensual desire, ultimately led us to contemplate beauty and approach the spiritual perfection underlying the physical universe.

He believed that when we admire physical beauty, we glimpse the light of eternity shining in those features from a heavenly source beyond this world. It is this more advanced stage of appreciation that gave rise to the term Platonic love to distinguish it from more base sexual desire.

For Plato, Eros as a gateway to higher Platonic knowledge could be either heterosexual or homosexual, and there is certainly plenty at the exhibition to show why “Greek love” later became a euphemism for male homosexuality. But Plato also viewed Eros as a vital, “erotic” cosmic force flowing through nature, in which respect it was more purely heterosexual, with male and female aspects.

This more standard view is brilliantly captured in another fine sculpture, “Marble group of a nymph trying to escape from a satyr.” This shows a friendly tussle between a wild man of the woods and a female nature deity. Once again the subject of sexual desire is used to create a melodious composition that throws up beautiful shapes from whichever angle you view it.

“The Body Beautiful in Ancient Greece from the British Museum” at The National Museum of Western Art runs till Sept. 25; admission ¥1,500; open 9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. (Fri. till 8 p.m.). For more information, visit www.nmwa.go.jp.