‘The Body Beautiful in Ancient Greece’ is a delight to behold

Posted Thursday, May. 09, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
More information The Body Beautiful in Ancient Greece: Masterworks From the British Museum • Through Oct. 6 • Dallas Museum of Art, 1717 N. Harwood St., Dallas • $12-$16 • 214-922-1200, www.dma.org

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The ideal beauty as envisioned by the Greeks and Romans came about because they recognized the fallibility of man and nature. Perfection was a sublime balance between the physical and the rational that was desired but often impossible to achieve. So they imbued their deities with it and sought it for themselves, depicting the various states of grace in marble, terra cotta, bronze and gold.

More than 120 objects that explore the human form, from stunted mortals in miniature to larger-than-life deities in perfection, are on exhibit at the Dallas Museum of Art through Oct. 6 in “The Body Beautiful in Ancient Greece: Masterworks From the British Museum.”

This exhibit is a treat. Sculptural antiquities rarely travel, so when they do, it is worth the effort to see them. The large marble sculptures are on display in black-walled galleries that make the opalescent sheen of the stone glow as if lit from within. The larger-than-life discus thrower, one of the destination works at the British Museum, is making his first appearance in the U.S. It is a second-century Roman copy of a Greek original. The athlete is caught in midthrow, but experts say the pose is physically inaccurate for the sport of discus. Rather, they suspect, the sculptor was striving for the dichotomy of a full front chest with the legs in profile, of tensed and relaxed muscles, of balance and an off-kilter stance, a yin and yang that appears with subtlety in many sculptures of the time.

The male athlete was a very popular subject in ancient Greek art because it was a male-dominated society and athleticism was considered a virtue. Women rarely appear in the course of artistic depiction. When they do, they are often shown as prostitutes and courtesans, or as deities. Goddess sculptures came with a cautionary understanding that to gaze upon them was to risk their wrath. It is impossible not to peek at the lovely Aphrodite as she emerges from her bath, the draperies slipping down about her hips and revealing all her attributes. She is indeed female, but with a firmness of physique that is as much masculine as it is feminine.

As the cult of Dionysus gathered steam in the third century B.C., the chiseled male fell from favor and a softer, more feminine face and body became popular. The figures took on a tentative androgyny. We see the athletes become squishy, the goddesses androgynous.. The large, imposing marble head of the goddess Hera, also in the exhibit, could go either way, male or female. The perfected “she,” in the eyes of the Greek artist, had strong masculine characteristics.

“These are representations of our own best selves,” says curator Ian Jenkins from the British Museum. “Greeks invented the idea of humanity.”

So although they may look like the ideal, they are often packing more than physical perfection. The sculptures and ceramics often display the warring natures within humans; sometimes the better ones are triumphant, but often they’re not.

The exploration of the state of perfection via gods and goddesses contrasts with stories of man’s inhumanity that loop around the shoulders of urns, such as the tale of Trojan King Priam being beaten to death with the body of his infant grandson.

Some of the seemingly most insignificant pieces on display, the terra-cotta figures found in burial tombs, have the most poignancy. Neither ideal nor grotesque, they show quixotic figures caught being themselves, laughing, playing, being naughty; they exhibit the creativity behind the humanism.

A small bronze of Zeus, less than 10 inches in height, is a replica of a 43-foot-tall sculpture that is considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. It is one of the very best bronzes in the British Museum’s permanent collection, Jenkins says. It, too, is in one of the small showcases off to the side. These little vitrines offer a pleasurable reward, as do the text blocks that accompany the displays.

The visitor is presented with the recurring image of Herakles, who shoulders the thematic thread of the exhibit. He was a professional boxer who was not perfect, but who battled his demons, conquered terrors and was the legendary founder of the Olympic Games. For those feats and for his humanity, Herakles was graced with immortality. He is seen, flat-nosed and at his bulky prime, in bronze in the first gallery. He can be found midtour, chasing away the feebleness of old age on amphoras, and, as the exhibit’s parting shot, he is depicted in a marble bust, larger than life and transitioning to the god-state.

Gaile Robinson, 817-390-7113 Twitter: @GaileRobinson

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