by: Christopher Allen
THE Greeks were the first to conceive of the body as beautiful — something we tend to take for granted, having inher¬ited the idea through its rediscovery in the Renaissance.
But, as a new and illuminating exhibition at the Bendigo Art Gallery on loan from The British Museum shows, the Greek perception of the human body is different to ours, which can mostly be divided into sexually desirable undesirable and even repellent.
The Greeks were just as sexually responsive to bodies as anyone else, but they conceived of something above and beyond that animal level of appetite: they saw that the beauty and harmony of the body could be the visible manifestation of a deeper moral beauty and equilibrium. Beauty became the symbol of everything we mean by humanism: belief in the capacity of man to be autonomous, virtuous and harmonious.
The training of the body, gymnastike, was an integral part of the Greek conception of education, the other two being grammata (reading and writing) and mousike, including literature and music. All of these were part of the culture of a good citizen, who had to be fit and strong as well as intelligent and wise. And all this was subsumed under a conception of beauty summed up by the word kalokagathia, a fusion of the ideas of goodness and beauty.
The earliest pieces in the exhibition illustrate the Greeks becoming aware of the torso. It is here that the ideal of beauty begins to be formed. The Strangford Apollo (above) shows an understanding of the pelvic girdle as a horizontal axis that could be tilted with the dropping of weight on to one leg.
From there, a new conception emerged of the torso as a single strong and yet flexible form from shoulders to hips, uniting the shoulder girdle, rib cage and pelvic girdle.
In most cases, at least in freestanding sculpture, the classical torso bends or tilts to a moderate degree, dynamic yet graceful and poised.
The Greek diet, which was devoid of sugar, helped. Without sugar, it is nearly impossible to get fat. And the Greeks were free of more pernicious imports from the Americas: syphilis returned with Columbus’s sailors at the end of the 15th century, putting an end to the Renaissance rediscovery of the joy of sex and underscoring the Christian message of guilt and sin.