‘Body Beautiful’: Sex and the Single Sculpture

The Greek Ideal at Portland Art Museum: Ah, it's perfect. And nervously sexy.

Nymph and satyr: just good clean fun? © The Trustees of The British Museum

Amid a lively tour of the marbles and vases in “The Body Beautiful in Ancient Greece,” the Portland Art Museum’s new blockbuster exhibition of antiquarian Greek and Roman art from the British Museum, Ian Jenkins stopped and exclaimed with pleasure over a tiny bronze figure tucked inconspicuously inside a vitrine.

“Big dumb-dumb Ajax!” Jenkins declared with glee. The sculpture, short and curved over itself into a kind of crude “C,” is notable for its obvious fully engorged penis. Not quite three inches tall and created sometime in the eighth century B.C, the crudely formed artwork had been tucked away for ages, Jenkins observed, as “that erotic piece.”

The bronze Ajax. © The Trustees of the British Museum

But it’s also much more: possibly the earliest surviving depiction of the great Greek mythic warrior, a brave and powerful if not overwhelmingly clever hero, who as a consequence of being shamed in competition with Odysseus goes mad and falls on his sword. The small piece shows Ajax bent over, thrusting his blade into his gut. It’s an act of atonement that brings the warrior back to full balance and honor, which the artist portrays as a literal, sexual reinvigoration – a return, in the throes of death, to the fullness of manhood. “It’s an expressionistic, it’s a primitive image,” Jenkins summed up. And in its quick clean urgent lines it also seems intensely modern.

Jenkins, the British Museum’s senior curator of Greek and Roman antiquities, knows this territory better than almost anyone. He was in Portland for the installation and opening of “The Body Beautiful,” and led a breezy, entertaining, and extraordinarily well-informed group tour of the exhibition a couple of days before it officially opened. Following and listening to him was like getting rare glimpses into the workings of a fertile, playful, rigorous, and fully engaged mind.

The anonymous Ajax is far from the most illustrious of the 130-odd works in “The Body Beautiful,” and a lot of visitors probably won’t notice it at all. But it’s easy to understand the pleasure that Jenkins takes in it, because it’s unlikely and unassuming, any yet it represents a key idea to understanding the ancient world this exhibition represents. The notion of sexuality, Jenkins believes, is central to ancient Greek culture, and it’s represented here in multiple ways. Aphrodite and her followers are on hand, and naked male athletes and heroes, and men and women coupling on the painted surfaces of vases and drinking cups, sometimes with onlookers gaping voyeuristically at them. In his wide-ranging, erudite, and sometimes wryly comic observations, Jenkins spoke of eros – “erotic love, as distinguished from agape, spiritual love” – and laced his conversation with allusions to Greek myths and dramas involving strong wild women whose deeds of revenge or retribution upset the order of things.

On his tour Jenkins stopped again, this time beside the second century A.D. marble “Nymph Trying To Escape from a Satyr,” a Roman copy of a lost Greek work from the second or first century B.C. It’s a coy carving. The nymph grabs the satyr’s hair and pushes. He grimaces. But she’s grinning, as if this is mere foreplay, a game. Jenkins refers to this sort of sculpture as “a form of pornography fulfilling male fantasies about unbridled sex, in societies where relations between male citizens and respectable women were strictly controlled.” In other words: Greek attitudes about sexuality, as in so many cultures, were freer in theory than in actuality. Male homosexuality may have been more casually accepted, but the average citizen’s sex life was hardly the randy frolic of the gods – and art provided an escape valve, at least for men.

Indeed, you can whiff in the exhibition’s background the perfume of a possible older matriarchal society, overthrown in the dim recesses by men but still remembered in the bone, and still feared: what if the worm turns again? “The ancient Greeks had the idea of the female body as something that needed to be tamed,” Jenkins noted. Later, he added: “There was an anxiety in male society of the potential for women to break out and ruin the reputation of the household.” O Clytemnestra. O Medea. O Amazons. Here, in a nutshell, is a vision not just of sexuality but of the war between the sexes as a shattering consequence: “This is the world turned upside down. And this is the world that tragedy explores.”

Pan on the hoof. Bronze, first–third century A.D., southern Italy. © The Trustees of The British Museum

“The Body Beautiful,” which will stay at the Portland Art Museum through January 6, has arrived with understandable fanfare: The show’s two floors of galleries are sprinkled liberally with classical masterworks on a level that the Pacific Northwest rarely gets to see. Yes, you could go to the British Museum and see far more, in far better context, than in this centuries-spanning sampling. But most of us, most of the time, can’t simply hop a plane to London or Paris or Athens or Rome. And if this selection cavorts a trifle cavalierly across the centuries, it’s also a smartly chosen sampling that includes some genuine stars, and it has the great advantage of being here, not there. For that, Pacific Northwest art and history lovers can be immensely grateful. The exhibition’s 130 works are only a smidgen of the massive holdings of the British Museum, whose collection includes more than 8 million works. (The Portland Art Museum, a mid-sized regional American institution, has roughly 42,000.) That doesn’t mean the 130 chosen aren’t excellent examples of their kind. Jenkins, who was the exhibition’s co-curator with Victoria Turner for the London museum, spoke of the selection with genuine affection. “I can’t believe we loaned this,” he said, smiling ruefully and turning to a modest-sized first or second century bronze statue of Zeus that is thought to be similar, on a much smaller scale, to the colossal gold and ivory version by the sculptor Pheidias that was one of the traditional Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

How will audiences interpret what they’re seeing in “The Body Beautiful”? How many will have the historical and literary background to put the works into perspective, especially without the benefit of a guide as knowledgeable and enthusiastic as Jenkins? Contrarily, with the saturation of similar images from countless popular images and picture books, will visitors be able to sidestep the “Mona Lisa” effect and see the works with fresh eyes? My guess is, seeing the works first-hand in this elegant installation (Bruce Guenther, the Portland museum’s chief curator, is the host curator for the show) will do a great deal to cut through both ignorance and overfamiliarity and help create an intimate and personal experience. The common caution that reproductions can’t adequately represent most artworks applies doubly or even trebly here: No picture can bring these works to life the way that actually seeing them in the flesh can. On an initial walkthrough the bigger marbles naturally seize the day. A good strategy, if you can manage it, would be to see the show twice, concentrating on the sculpture on one visit and the ceramics and other smaller pieces on another.

If sexuality is a major theme, so is storytelling, which only makes sense: the Greeks were among our first and greatest storytellers, and like the ancient Jews they had the good sense to actually write their stories down. If Jewish storytelling largely traces a path from polytheism to monotheism, the Greek tales revel in the vitality and surprising sophistication of a cosmos filled with multiple deities who are not better than humans, only more powerful. In a way, this is a more practical and even modern vision of the universe and the way that humans fit into it: as spectators to, and occasional victims of, forces beyond their control. The Olympian gods and various demigods and other creatures of the mythos were, in a real sense, super-human: exaggerated images of humanity in all of its weakness, selfishness, cruelty, and occasional bursts of courage and even love. Ancient Greeks and Romans presumably followed the exploits and excesses of the gods the way we follow the rise and fall of sports and entertainment heroes, from Lance Armstrong to the execrably omnipresent Kardashians, contemporary Gorgons of the gossip columns. Jenkins drove home the connection that makes these antiquarian artworks and the culture that created them still matter deeply. “The Greeks invented the idea of the individual, with a soul,” he said. “They created the system by which we think of ourselves as sentient and intelligent human beings.” To that, he added: “The subject of the exhibition is, well, really, us. Humanity. Human beings 2,500 years ago.”

Arm back, head forward: the discus thrower. © The Trustees of The British Museum

For many, and perhaps even most, visitors the exhibition’s obvious centerpiece will be “Diskobolus,” the discus thrower, this particular one a second century A.D. Roman copy of the sculptor Myron’s lost bronze original from the fifth century B.C. (This version is imperfect in an intriguing way: at some point it lost its head, and it was restored incorrectly, so that the athlete is looking forward rather than back, at the unreleased discus, as he should.) It’s a beautiful, graceful, almost perfect image, almost inconceivably balanced in that moment of stillness before the thrower’s body swings into action and the sphere flies off into space. It seems a brilliant documentary statement – and again, it’s more. “In the eyes of the ancient Greeks he was more than just a photographic moment,” Jenkins noted. The discus thrower’s form was the result of specific metrics that together equated to physical, moral, and intellectual harmony – “an eternal representation of the idea of youthful beauty.”

Armless Aphrodite, in delicate balance. © The Trustees of the British Museum

On the flip side of the sexes from the discus thrower is a marvelous statue of Aphrodite from 200 to 100 B.C., said to be from Patras in western Greece. She’s armless, green and pocked with age, but gorgeous – leaning over, her left leg raised and bent at the knee, her hair swooped backward: an astonishment of captured movement. We see a Buddha-like marble of the philosopher Socrates from between 200 B.C. and 100 A.D. – “the only full-length depiction of Socrates to survive from the ancient world” – and a worn Herakles, symbol of human fortitude, from the villa of Emperor Hadrian in Tivoli, plus ample examples of what Jenkins calls Outsiders: minotaurs, centaurs, sphinxes, satyrs, “the weirdos of the ancient world, the world of chaos that threatens always.” Among the exhibition’s standouts are a first century A.D. Roman version of a second century B.C. marble called “Two Boys Fighting Over a Game of Knucklebones.” All that’s left of the second boy is his broken-off forearm and hand, which the first boy is biting. The absence creates a pulsatingly modern presence: the idea of viciousness in that disembodied bite. From about the same time comes a strangely moving sculpture of a fisherman selling his wares: a rough, burly, beaten figure with an animal-like face, heavy-featured and strong. And a first or second century Roman sculpture of a comic actor, face caved in and grotesquely masked, also has a surprisingly modern feel: behind the stock-comic mask the actor’s lips are tight and solemn, a rare look at the starker humanity behind the idealized surface.

Drinking cup, ca. 480 B.C., attributed to the Dokimasia Painter. © The Trustees of The British Museum

All of this is not even to mention the many marvelous ceramic bowls, vases and platters, which deserve their own separate essay. It was a painted urn, after all, that inspired Keats to poetry, and in these several visions of exquisite form decorated with lively pictorial narratives you can understand why. Here are athletes, warriors, monsters, musicians, dancers, lovers, playing out their stories for everyday consumption. And the rich colors of the pottery give at least a hint to what the statues, bleached white by time, might have looked like in their painted prime.

You can’t bring back the past. You can only glimpse it and try to understand it, dimly. Still, “The Body Beautiful” reminds us that a great deal of what began in Greece is still a vital part of us: In the Western world at least we are still, if less fully than we once were, all Greeks. And the show reminds us that time is also circular. The idealized realism of Greek and Roman art at their height became flattened and simplified during the medieval centuries before returning, in fresh forms, during the Renaissance, then fracturing again in the 20th century. Why was there a 2,000-year gap between Myron’s discus thrower and Michelangelo’s David?

Meanwhile, if you happen across that little sexualized Ajax slumped quietly in his death throes in the corner of his vitrine, stick around and pay your respects. He may be small and anonymous and frankly overwhelmed in this setting. But he’s also … well, how to put this? Let’s just say, surprisingly exciting.



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