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"The Body Beautiful in Ancient Greece" on view at the Portland Art Museum
Marble figurine of a woman, Late Spedos type, Greek, made in the Cyclades, about 2600?2400 BC. © The Trustees of The British Museum 2012. All rights reserved.

PORTLAND, OR.- Selected from the world-famous Greek and Roman collection of the British Museum, the Portland Art Museum presents The Body Beautiful in Ancient Greece, a visually stunning and thought-provoking exploration of the human condition seen through ancient Greek eyes.

The exhibition presents a diverse selection of some 130 objects exploring the Greeks’ fascination with the human body and humanity which was pervasive in ancient Greek culture. The development of the human body in art was driven by the ancient Greek lust for life and constant enquiry.

Visitors travel back in time to Olympia and the Acropolis, sites that were central to the subject and presentation of Greek art. Olympia and other athletic fields were theaters for the display of the athletic male body. Athletics were central to Greek life and young men engaged in sports to prepare for battle. Even religious festivals included sporting contests, which attracted athletes and spectators from throughout the Greek world. The Olympic festival was the oldest, held every four years from 776 BC in honor of the god Zeus.

The idealized male body was a common subject of Greek art. The earliest images are schematic and emphasize the essential elements of manhood. But by the fifth century BC, the male figure appears relaxed with greater realism. The exhibition traces this artistic evolution from prehistoric simplicity to the realism of the Hellenistic age.

Caring for the body and keeping fit were social obligations in the ancient Greek world and were considered crucial to the raising of male citizens. Athletics were a form of training for warfare and most Greek men could expect to be called to fight for their city-state. Physical perfection was also considered a reflection of inner moral rectitude. Athletes trained and competed naked and victorious athletes gained near heroic status and might be commemorated with statues.

The Discobolus, or discus-thrower, is one of the most important images from the ancient world and one of the highlights of the exhibition. This statute represents the height of the ideal of male beauty and athleticism. It shows an athlete—naked, refined, and eternally youthful— seemingly captured in the moment before releasing the discus. The sculpture is designed to be seen from a single viewpoint. The composition is contained in one shallow plane with the limbs and torso artificially arranged to correspond with Greek ideas of balance and rhythm. The chest faces the viewer while the curvature of the arms intersects with the line formed by the head and spine, evoking the shape and energy of a drawn bow.

This marble statue is one of several copies of a lost bronze original of the fifth century BC. The head on this figure has been wrongly restored, and should be turned to look towards the discus.

While the male body was almost always shown naked, the female body was usually shown clothed. However, fertility cults, sex scenes, and the representations of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, provided opportunities for female nudity. While frequently draped, the Greek artists left little to the imagination in their depictions of the female form.

Openly sexual images were common in Greek art and found on a wide range of artifacts including those for everyday use. The naked human form often represented in an explicitly sexual context, but the intention was not always to arouse desire but rather to celebrate fertility or the worship of Dionysos, god of wine. However, some images were designed to arouse, including depictions of orgies, exchanges with courtesans, and homosexuality.

Part of the Greeks’ humanism was their worship of gods of human form. These gods were distinguished from their human subjects by their immortality and supernatural powers. The idea of a family of gods living on Mount Olympos, a mountain in northern Greece, is first found in Homer’s poetry of the eighth century BC. Each deity had his or her own association—Poseidon and the sea, Aphrodite and love, Ares and war, and so on.

The Greeks also celebrated heroes, and the greatest of these was Herakles, the ultimate strongman. Hera, the jealous wife of Zeus, hated Herakles because he was Zeus’ son by a mortal woman. She sent a fit of madness upon him and he killed his wife and children. To atone, he performed 12 labors and was eventually rewarded for his struggles with immortality and a place among the gods. His story was an example of how physical endurance could lead to the rewards of victory. This vase shows Herakles’ journey to Olympos. Herakles is the legendary founder of the Olympic Games and a patron god of the gymnasium.

The imaginative world of ancient Greek myth also included a cast of strange monsters. Many combined human with animal parts as symbols of their otherworldliness. For the Greeks, these imaginary outsiders served to contrast with their own civilized society and behavior. Creatures such as satyrs, part man and part horse or goat, are shown behaving in wild ways which express the baser human instincts.

In early Greek art, human differences of age, gender, and ethnicity were represented in general terms. However, through time, the horizons of the Greek experience were expanded leading to greater realism in the portrayal of individuals in art and a demand for portraits of famous men, and the occasional woman.

The Body Beautiful in Ancient Greece explores the Greeks’ fascination with the human body and humanity which was pervasive in ancient Greek culture. In drama, philosophy, history, scientific medicine, and the natural sciences at large, Greeks were the first to direct the human mind on its modern quest for self-knowledge. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to explore some of the most important objects from one of the most important periods in the history of Western civilization.

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"The Body Beautiful in Ancient Greece" on view at the Portland Art Museum

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