Ancient Greek Art’s Fascination with Perfect Human Body

 

Ancient Greece boasted the most number of mathematicians and philosophers in ancient history. Mathematics came to be the centerpiece of architecture, art, and music after the discovery of golden ratio and Pythagoras’ harmonics. Greek sculptors started to approach their artworks in mathematical ways. Polykleitos wrote a treatise on sculpture called “The Canon.” It was the first professional treatise on sculptures. The facts about balance, harmony, and proportions in human body were made known by Polykleitos in the Canon.

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Ancient Greek art can be divided into four periods; Geometric and Orientalizing period (900 – 700 BCE), Archaic Period (700 – 500 BCE), Classical Period (500 – 400 BCE), and Hellenistic period (320 – 30 BCE), which was the peak of Greek art before Greece was conquered by Rome. In the foremost period, their artistic visions manifested in pottery and small scale sculptures because pottery was the first form of art where sculpting and painting or drawing met and it came before actual life size sculptures of Greek period. Their attempt to capture the human body can be seen in paintings done on pots where the artists tried to focus on muscles and the volume of the human body. In Black and Red paintings from Archaic Period, it can be seen that they turned their focus from decorative patterns to more elaborate depictions of human figures by painting the arms, legs, and the rest of the human body to get as close as the real human.

In contrast to Neolithic and Egyptian art, Archaic era Greek artworks seemed to pride themselves on depicting the details of human figures and other intricate details. Egyptian artworks only seemed to focus more on size, narration, material, and facial features of their human figures. And, Egyptian statues were stiff. Greek statues borrowed the basic concepts from existing Egyptian sculptures and enhanced them with features and details that were closer to the real human figure. During the Classical period the main focus was officially on muscles, contours, poses, and the will to recreate the most accurate representation of a human body. Greeks made most of their sculptures seem alive by using contrapposto pose where the figure stood with most of its weight on one foot so that its shoulders were uneven and its body had a twist.

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The Riace Warriors (aka Riace bronzes or Bronzi de Riace) are the bronze sculptures made in early Classic Period. The Riace Warriors consist of two sculptures; A and B standing 198cm and 203cm tall respectively. The Riace Warriors both stand in contrapposto pose holding shields and spears. The attached shields and spears were lost when they were recovered in 1972. They were originally cast using the lost wax technique with hollows inside. They have copper details for the lips and the nipples. The shift from rather simple and static style to more idealized style can be seen in both sculptures. In comparison to Kritios Boy, which was considered to be the first work that bore the contrapposto stance, the Riace bronzes displayed it more significantly. The details of the hair, beard, arm muscles, knee caps, and lower leg muscles are indicating that the sculptors tried to get their artworks closest to the ideal human body. The feet in the Riace bronzes are more detailed and look almost identical to be real than the sculptures from the Archaic period and any other sculptures that came before them.

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Aforementioned Canon by Polykleitos explained the ideal mathematical proportions in human body and suggested a rather natural way for poses by highlighting on dynamic counter balance, asymmetric symmetry, and directions of the lines in the human body. Polykleitos also proposed an ideal way to measure the human body, based on the size of human’s head. Polykleitos also made a sculpture named “The Canon” to go with the treatise. After Greek was taken over by the Romans, both the manuscript and the sculpture were lost. The Canon sculpture was imitated by the Romans with the name known to us today as “Doryphoros.” Doryphoros bears every mathematical fact in the Canon; thus a representation of “perfect man” is achieved.

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Praxiteles’ Aphrodite of Knidos was the first female life size representation in ancient Greek history. Aphrodite also stood in contrapposto while her arms, thighs, and face looked like they were made out of actual flesh. That’s what the artist achieved with Aphrodite. Praxiteles not only emphasized an asymmetry in the human body, the artwork as a whole played with asymmetrical balance by using cloth and the pot next to her.

[8]“The statue of the goddess established a canon for the female nude, and inspired many derivatives and variants, the best of which is considered to be the Colonna Knidia, which is in the Vatican’s Pio-Clementine Museum. Here she stands in a contrapposto pose, her weight on her right leg, her left knee slightly bent. A Roman copy, it is not thought to match the polished beauty of the original, which was destroyed in a disastrous fire at Constantinople in AD 475.”

Greeks participated in religious and athletic events nude and celebrated the human body. It was written in The Telegraph newspaper that

[9]“If you go in the Assyrian galleries, there are nudes but they are not heroic. They are victims of war, stripped and flayed alive. The Greeks found such representations as unappealing as we do. Their nudity was part of a disassociation from the reality of war. It’s an entirely different aesthetic world.”

They made appealing nude figures of honored warriors and the ones who won the combats to celebrate them. But the purpose of the whole genre was an attempt to create life, celebrating health, organic equilibrium, youth, and the geometry encompassed in nature.

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There are certain parts of contemporary art where people are still dealing with representation or semi-representation. People in this case (example Os Gemeos; Street-artist duo) want to move away from ideals that Greek artists set yet they still seem to have the similar concept of approaching their stylized human figures. For Os Gemeos, they have their own set of ratios and proportions that can tell the audience who made it. Proportion is now being used as a signature or their niche in a way. But in another case, there are artist

s like Banksy and Etam Crew, who would still continue with the same set of ideals that Greek artists suggested by either appropriating old artworks or creating new artworks. Narration is more highlighted for these kinds of artists in this case. There’s another case where artists like Jeff Koons; recreating found objects with a change in size, texture, and materials. For example, Koons recreated balloon dolls painted with porcelain. Even though the artworks are not human figures, the artist still has to maintain the objects’ real life proportions to get his point across to the audience – that basically follows the rules of proportions and balance explained in The Canon.

For abstract artists, there are some like Jason Revok or Frank Stella, who would just stay away from representation and old rules, but one thing for sure is that they still have to come back to basic art elements like proportions and balance for geometric shapes to create a visually appealing artwork. Nude Art of the Greeks might not have direct effect on contemporary artists. But their take on art or their way of breaking down artworks in mathematical ways still exists today and might be around much longer. If not, forever.

Bart
September 24, 2016

BIBILOGRAPHY

“Geometric, Orientalizing and Archaic Greek Pottery.” Kenney Mercher. Accessed September 15, 2016. http://kenney-mencher.com/pic_old/classic_early_christian_byzantine/pottery.htm

“Two-handled jar (amphora) with Achilles and Ajax.” Museum of Fine Arts Boston. Accessed September 15, 2016. http://www.mfa.org/collections/object/two-handled-jar-amphora-with-achilles-and-ajax-153408

“National Museum of Magna Græcia and Riace Bronzes.” Italy Magazine. Accessed September 15, 2016. http://www.italymagazine.com/point-of-interest/national-museum-magna-graecia-and-riace-bronzes

“Kritios Boy.” Wikipedia. Accessed September 15, 2016. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kritios_Boy#/media/File:009MA_Kritios.jpg

“Doryphoros.” Wikipedia. Accessed September 15, 2016. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doryphoros

“Classical Body.” Suny Oneota. Accessed September 15, 2016. https://www.oneonta.edu/faculty/farberas/arth/arth200/Body/classical_body.htm

“Aphrodite of Cnidus.” Wikipedia. Accessed September 15, 2016. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aphrodite_of_Cnidus

Aelius Stilo.“Aphrodite of Cnidus.” Sir Thomas Browne. Accessed September 15, 2016.

http://penelope.uchicago.edu/~grout/encyclopaedia_romana/greece/hetairai/aphrodite.html

Anita Singh.“British Museum explains why Greek statues are naked.” The Telegraph. Last Modified 08 Jan 2015. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/howaboutthat/11333473/British-Museum-explains-why-Greek-statues-are-naked.html

“Giant, Collaboration with Futura.” Os Gemeos. Accessed September 25, 2016. http://www.osgemeos.com.br/en/projetos/giant-collaboration-with-futura/

“Moonshine.” Etam Cru. Accessed September 25, 2016. http://www.etamcru.com/etam/moonshine

“Celebration: Balloon Dog”, Jeff Koons. Accessed September 25, 2016. http://www.jeffkoons.com/artwork/celebration/balloon-dog-0

1.“Geometric, Orientalizing and Archaic Greek Pottery,” Kenney Mercher, accessed September 15 2016, http://kenney-mencher.com/pic_old/classic_early_christian_byzantine/pottery.htm

[2] “Two-handled jar (amphora) with Achilles and Ajax,” Museum of Fine Arts Boston, accessed September 15, 2016, http://www.mfa.org/collections/object/two-handled-jar-amphora-with-achilles-and-ajax-153408

[3] “National Museum of Magna Græcia and Riace Bronzes”, Italy Magazine, accessed September 15 2016, http://www.italymagazine.com/point-of-interest/national-museum-magna-graecia-and-riace-bronzes

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“Kritios Boy”, Wikipedia, accessed September 15 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kritios_Boy#/media/File:009MA_Kritios.jpg

[5] “Doryphoros,” Wikipedia, accessed September 15 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doryphoros

[6] “Classical Body,” Suny Oneota, accessed September 15 2016, https://www.oneonta.edu/faculty/farberas/arth/arth200/Body/classical_body.htm

[7] “Aphrodite of Cnidus”, Wikipedia, accessed September 15 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aphrodite_of_Cnidus

[8] Aelius Stilo ,“Aphrodite of Cnidus,” Sir Thomas Browne, accessed September 15, 2016, http://penelope.uchicago.edu/~grout/encyclopaedia_romana/greece/hetairai/aphrodite.html

[9] Anita Singh, “British Museum explains why Greek statues are naked,” The Telegraph, Last Modified 08 Jan 2015, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/howaboutthat/11333473/British-Museum-explains-why-Greek-statues-are-naked.html

[10] “Giant, Collaboration with Futura”, Os Gemeos, accessed September 25, 2016, http://www.osgemeos.com.br/en/projetos/giant-collaboration-with-futura/

[11] “Moonshine”, Etam Cru, accessed September 25, 2016, http://www.etamcru.com/etam/moonshine

[12] “Celebration: Balloon Dog”, Jeff Koons, accessed September 25, 2016, http://www.jeffkoons.com/artwork/celebration/balloon-dog-0