DEFINING BEAUTY: THE BODY IN ANCIENT GREEK ART

by I. Jenkins, with C. Farge and V. Turner

The British Museum Press, London (2015) 256pp £30 (ISBN 9780714122878)

This book, with its 200+ illustrations, accompanies the British Museum exhibition of the same title running from 26 March to 5 July 2015. The book consists of four introductory essays, followed by ten thematic sections (roughly three-quarters of the book). These are essentially pictures of objects and accompanying explication, constituting a catalogue of the exhibition. The writing is for the general reader rather than the specialist.

Arguably the most interesting sections of the book present some of the latest thinking about the use of colour in ancient (classical) sculpture. Unlike the new Akropolis Museum in Athens, say, the classical galleries of the British Museum normally present Greek and Roman statuary with little accompanying comment on the original coloration. It is all the more breath-taking, then, to contemplate illustrations of the clutch of brightly-painted casts displayed in the exhibition. The impact of these reconstructions is visually stunning. The disconcerting unfamiliarity of the overlay of joyous polychromy on stone and metal requires a new art-historical narrative, one which classical archaeologists, it is perhaps fair to say, have yet to provide. At any rate, the British Museum’s decision to include the painted casts—brought over from Germany—is another step forward in this process of re-education, as is the emphasis in the essay by German classical archaeologist Vinzenz Brinkmann, a well-known specialist in this area, on the quality of lifelikeness—as opposed merely to realism—apparently so sought after by the ancient Greeks (and Romans).

Also illustrated in the book (pp 66-67) is another highlight of the exhibition, the life-size bronze of a naked athlete found fairly recently in the Adriatic off the Croatian coast. The head in particular, the lips inlaid in copper, is a minor masterpiece, and the figure as a whole raises well-known, but still puzzling, questions about the cultural significance of male nakedness in the public arts of ancient Greece. Ian Jenkins, the chief curator of the exhibition, addresses these questions in the first of the essays (‘The human body in Greek art and thought’), and offers plenty of food for thought.

As in the exhibition itself, some of the catalogue perhaps shades into a discourse on Greek and Roman life (arms and armour etc.) rather than keeping a sharp focus on the ‘body in ancient Greek art’. Clear exceptions are the selected Elgin marbles (complemented by a very interesting essay by Athena S. Leoussi on their nineteenth-century reception). In all, the book, beautiful to handle, offers a valuable commentary on, and amplification of, the significance of the classical collections of the British Museum, to which the vast majority of the objects illustrated belong.

Tony Spawforth—a.j.s.spawforth@ncl.ac.uk

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