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Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art - British Museum

Exhibition preview

THIS spring, the British Museum will stage a major exhibition exploring the Greek experience and its preoccupation with the human form. Sponsored by Julius Baer and entitled Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art, it will be on display in the Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery from March 26 to July 5, 2015.

To the ancient Greeks the body was a thing of beauty and a bearer of meaning. The remarkable works of art in the exhibition range from the abstract simplicity of prehistoric figurines to breathtaking realism in the age of Alexander the Great. Giving form to thought, these works continued to inspire artists for hundreds of years and, over time, shaped the way we think of ourselves.

The exhibition will feature around 150 objects, including some of the most beautiful Greek sculpture to have survived from antiquity. In addition to iconic white marble statues, the exhibition will include exquisite works in terracotta, beautiful bronzes and fascinating vases that demonstrate the quality and inventiveness of ancient Greek craftsmen.

Outstanding objects from the British Museum, one of the most important collections of Greek art in the world, will be shown alongside extraordinary loans from other world-class collections.

Ancient Greek sculpture was both art and experience. The exhibition will present sculpture as an encounter between viewer and the object. The first such encounter will be a newly discovered original bronze sculpture of a nude athlete, scraping his body with a metal tool after exercise and before bathing. Raised off the seabed near Lošinj, Croatia in 1999, this rare survival of an ancient bronze statue will be shown for the first time in Britain after years of conservation.

For the first time, six Parthenon sculptures will be taken out of the permanent Parthenon gallery and will be installed in the temporary exhibition in order to contribute to a different narrative from their usual context.

As a supreme example of the work of the sculptor Phidias, the river god Ilissos will be shown in dialogue with the work of two of the sculptor’s contemporaries; the Townley Discobolus, a Roman copy of the lost original by Myron, and Georg Römer’s reconstruction of the Doryphoros by Polykleitos. The three great sculptors of the age, Myron, Polykleitos and Phidias, were said to have been trained in the workshop of a single master and each motivated by a strong impulse to outdo the other.

In addition to the figure of Ilissos, other examples of sculpture from the Parthenon temple will be shown in different sections of the exhibition including a metope, two blocks from the frieze, one figure from the West Pediment and one figure from the East Pediment group.

The exhibition will also explore the revival of the Greek body in the modern era following its destruction and disappearance at the end of pagan antiquity.

Prior to the arrival of the Parthenon sculptures in London in the early 1800s, Greek art was viewed through Roman copies of lost Greek originals, such as the Belvedere Torso, which will be lent by the Vatican Museum. This seated hero, perhaps Herakles, was regarded by Michelangelo as the finest fragment of classical sculpture that could be seen in his day. It will be shown alongside his drawing of Adam for the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

These masterpieces will be displayed in a unique combination with a reclining nude figure from the East pediment of the Parthenon. Thus the school of Michelangelo will be brought together with the school of Phidias for the first time.

The exhibition will explore how, in Greek art, the body acts as a pictorial language for articulating the human condition. It can represent every aspect of mortal and divine experience, in fulfilment of Protagoras’s statement “Man is the measure of all things”.

This exhibition will be the first in a series to focus on important areas of the Museum’s famous permanent collection to guide future thinking about the display of one of the most important collections of sculpture in the world, allowing for a greater dialogue between the sculptures of different cultures.

Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum said: “This exhibition will be a celebration of the beauty and ideals of ancient Greek art. Some of the most beautiful works in the world will be brought together for the first time in a narrative exploring the highest achievements of ancient Greek artists and philosophers, exploring what it is to be human. I am hugely grateful to Julius Baer for their generous support of the exhibition”.

Adam Horowitz, Head of Julius Baer International Limited, United Kingdom, said: “Julius Baer, the international reference in pure private banking, with a large footprint in the UK, is renowned not only for its long tradition in wealth management but also for its engagement with arts and culture over many decades. Both areas rely on partnerships, which are founded on trust and sharing a common goal. We are very proud to sponsor a major exhibition at the British Museum for the third consecutive time. Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art will provide exciting and vivid insights into the human body as it was expressed in ancient Greek art and thought.”

The beautifully illustrated exhibition catalogue Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art, edited by Ian Jenkins, will be published in March 2015 by British Museum Press. Hardback £30.

Image: Marble statue of a naked Aphrodite crouching at her bath, also known as Lely’s Venus. Roman copy of a Greek original, 2nd century AD. Lent by Her Majesty the Queen.

Tickets: £16.50, children under 16 free. Group rates available. To book, call +44 (0)20 7323 8181 or visit www.britishmuseum.org/.

Opening times: Monday to Thursday, 10am to 5.30pm; Friday, 10am to 8.30pm; Saturday and Sunday, 9am to 5.30pm. Last entry 80 minutes before closing time.

British Museum, Great Russell Street, London, WC1B 3DG