Thursday, October 21, 2010
Ancient Greek art exhibit at National Palace Museum highlights beauty of human body
By Nancy T. Lu
Banners showing the famous marble statue of an ancient Greek discus thrower fly and flap in the wind nowadays in several parts of Taipei, announcing the opening of “The Body Beautiful in Ancient Greece” exhibition at the National Palace Museum.
This masterpiece, which was a copy made upon the order of Roman Emperor Hadrian in the 2nd Century AD after a lost Greek original dating back to 450–400 BC, graced the poster of the Olympic Games in London in 1948. The arrival of the art treasure depicting an outstanding Greek athlete in the nude, which has required insurance coverage as high as NT$500 million, calls attention to the fact that the British capital is preparing to host once more the Olympic Games in 2012.
“The Body Beautiful in Ancient Greece” opened on October 15 at the National Palace Museum in Taipei and will run until February 7 next year. This is only the second time that the British Museum in London has lent treasures from its collections to the National Palace Museum in Taipei. Negotiations for the present project started two-and-a half years ago.
Ian Jenkins, the curator from the Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities at the British Museum, explained that many of the 136 items in the collection on loan from London museum with a history of 200 years were not found in Greece but came rather from Italy. The replica of Myron’s “Discus Thrower” was traced to Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli, Lazio, Italy.
Jenkins said that Greek athletes in ancient times competed in the nude. They, in fact, participated in the Olympic Games not only to show their exceptional talents but also to display their beautiful naked bodies.
The nude champion athlete in ancient Greece, however, strikes an image of modesty in the face of victory and accomplishment. One marble statue of a young man in the collection shows him looking down and not up in his moment of glory. He does not pump his fist in the air, observed Jenkins.
There were no female athletes in the ancient Olympic Games. They held their separate competitions in honor of the goddess Hera elsewhere though, according to Jenkins.
Opportunities to depict the female nude were few in ancient Greece. The naked female was associated more with cults and rituals little understood today, he noted. In fact, Brancusi, Modigliani and Giacometti were known admirers of a particular cult-related piece in the ongoing exhibition for showing a very sophisticated way in which the human body can be given abstract form.
“Artists in ancient Greece suggested the female body beneath drapery,” pointed out Jenkins. “Breasts and thighs of the female body were subtly suggested by folds and fall of drapery.”
A Greek artist in the early 4th century BC notoriously created a nude of Aphrodite, the goddess of love. A 1st or 2nd century AD version of this Greek original is now drawing admiring gazes from visitors at the National Palace Museum. The powerfully attractive marble representation of the goddess, as described by Jenkins, has her “stepping out of her bath, surprised by a voyeur.”
Jenkins spoke of the humanism of ancient Greek art, citing the portrayals of gods in human form – beautiful, perfect, and with personalities like human beings except for their immortality. Ruling over the gods and goddesses on Mount Olympus was Father Zeus, represented naturally in the collection on view by a bronze statue originating from Hungary and dating from the 1st-2nd century AD and made after the sculpture by Pheidias for the altar at Olympia.
Greek mythology sings of heroes and their stories. Herakles, perhaps the greatest of all heroes, and his 12 labors are painted on preserved ancient pottery. As half-god and half-mortal, he must fight his way into the pantheon of the gods. In one pottery painting on display, he bravely survives a struggle with a dangerous boar and even brings the animal back alive to taunt the enemy who puts him through this test shown hiding in a storage jar. Herakles is also depicted as being driven by Athena, the goddess who is his patron, in her chariot to meet his father Zeus on Mount Olympus at the end of his labors.
One section of the exhibition focuses on birth, marriage and death. In short, this is about the rite of passage from cradle to grave. Jenkins noted that marriage was to a girl what war was to a boy in ancient Greece. A woman found her place as wife and mother. A man experienced fulfillment through public engagement such as in politics and war. To die young in a battle was the most beautiful fulfillment for a man, explained Jenkins.
Episodes about atrocities of war as seen in Greek mythology are captured on artifacts. One depiction has the Greek warrior son of Achilles using the body of the grandson of aging King Priam of Troy to beat him to death.
A sphinx on exhibit calls to mind the easy riddle which Oedipus answered correctly. But he figured out too late the riddle of his life, fulfilling the prophecy of killing his father and marrying his mother.
Scenes of sexual intercourse were common in Greek art. The exhibition has a painted pottery item showing a sex worker – a slave as indicated by hair cut short – lowering herself on her partner during a Greek drinking party with sex orgy called symposium in those days.
Older men engaged in institutional mentoring of young boys can be viewed in the collection. Jenkins cited the 300 Spartans as 150 pairs of lovers as further indication of the practice of homosexuality in ancient Greece. Fidelity to the partner was upheld with honor, said Jenkins.
Female sexuality was addressed in Greek art as seen in the drinking cup of pottery shaped like a breast. Wine like a mother’s milk was drunk from a vessel resembling the female breast.
Fertility found totems of hope for growth. A woman appears to be watering her crop of phalluses grown in her garden on ancient pottery.
Terracotta human characters highlight great diversity, sometimes bringing smiles to viewers. Faces are just as interesting. The helmet is a different story. The wearer hides his individuality and goes into a battle as a killing machine, said Jenkins.
Sokrates, essence of an intellectual, was a beautiful mind in a most unattractive body. He challenged all who came into his world of confidence. He ended up executed.