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My, what big muscles you have

Rebecca Willis on why men want marble physiques

Rebecca Willis | March 25th 2015

“This is the absolutely-must-see exhibition of the year,” says the Times. And it’s only March. “Defining Beauty: the body in ancient Greek art” at the British Museum does indeed take your breath away. The exquisite sculptures that greet you in the first and last rooms would alone be worth the price of admission several times over.

Two of these, and four other sculptures in the exhibition are “from the Parthenon”—in other words, they are Elgin marbles—moved from their permanent gallery “in order”, says the blurb, “to contribute to a different narrative from their usual context”. The narrative in question is that the art of ancient Greece influenced what followed to such a degree that it “shaped the way we think of ourselves”. And here’s the spookily circular, snake-swallowing-its-own-tail bit: the fact that this art has created our notions of what constitutes beauty in the human form is precisely why this exhibition is bound to take us by the throat. And it is also why, I realised as I walked around, it is peculiarly relevant today.

In the first room I stood dazed, like a rabbit in headlights, not knowing which of the five magnificent, dramatically lit works to approach. The discus-thrower, perhaps? Which, like most of the marble sculptures, is a Roman copy of a Greek original. The river god Ilissos, back safely from his recent, somewhat controversial, visit to St Petersburg? Or the rare bronze, raised from the seabed in Croatia in 1999, of a young athlete scraping a layer of oil mixed with dust (an early form of sun protection) from his perfect thigh? You’re spoilt for choice: each of these would command a room of its own.

The last room houses the Belvedere torso, again a Roman copy of a Greek original, which Michelangelo sketched in the Vatican and apparently used as inspiration for Adam in the Sistine Chapel ceiling. His red-chalk drawing of Adam hangs nearby, and under normal circumstances would be hard to turn away from. The Belvedere torso was considered the paradigm of male beauty until it was knocked off its perch, metaphorically speaking, in the 19th century by the equally muscular and more complete figure of Dionysus from the east pediment of the Parthenon, which is also in this room, courtesy of Lord Elgin. That’s three of history’s greatest representations of male beauty in one room: quite a rich diet.

The exhibition does a good job of showing how Greek art increasingly breathed life into representations of the human figure, while at the same time idealising it. It illustrates how the sculptures would have originally been covered in coloured paint or brightly gilded. And above all it explains why the male body was glorified in a way that can seem to modern eyes at best vain and at worst fetishistic.

One reason is that there was a moral dimension to beauty: it was believed to be the outward expression of inner virtue. It was also about military power: “Most male citizens could expect to be called on to fight,” reads one of the captions, “and caring for the body was considered both a social and political obligation.” Socrates is quoted saying: “It is a disgrace to grow old through sheer carelessness before seeing what manner of man you may become by developing your bodily strength and beauty to their highest limit.” The body was a weapon. The young men of ancient Greece weren’t just cannon fodder; they were the bullets themselves.

This is also the absolutely-best-timed exhibition of the 21st century. And it’s only 2015. What could be more appropriate than this interrogation of male beauty at a time when we must surely be approaching what you might call “peak pecs”? There is scarcely a billboard, magazine or film which isn’t pushing an image of idealised male beauty—if you don’t believe this is new, just compare the BBC’s current version of “Poldark” with its 1970s original.

Many young men today are working out slavishly at the gym—the very word “gymnasium” comes from the Greek for “to exercise naked”. They are obsessively lifting weights to achieve the same muscled physiques that their sporting heroes share with the Greek gods. They are having “back, sack and crack” waxes to give them the same glabrous finish as the bronze or polished marble of ancient statuary. And eating disorders among men are on the rise. There is a cruel irony to this exhibition for anyone who cares about the mental health of the next generation, but at least here you can look the enemy in the eye. Beautiful as they are, these white marble figures cast dark shadows.

Defining Beauty: the body in ancient Greek art British Museum, London, March 26th until July 5th

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