Thursday, 25 June 2015

Was it as nice when it was new?

My dad used to say, "It must have been nice when it was new", on visits to museums.  I seem to remember being in a gallery and the lady attendant getting quite upset by his remark. What did he mean?  It was, (whatever we were looking at), quite beautiful now, she said.  

One section of Defining Beauty: the body in ancient Greek art at the British Museum made me think that some things were not as nice when they were new.  Replicas statues were painted in the bright colours as they would have been decorated originally. We are so used to ancient statues in smooth, monochrome marble or patinated bronze, that despite the evidence to the contrary, most people today would probably say they prefer them as they are now.  It is a great reminder that the definition of beauty can change over the centuries but it did give an insight into the textiles the figures might have worn.

Not surprisingly there were few other textiles depicted throughout the exhibition, as a large number of the statues were male nudes. Whilst the Persians and Assyrians believed nudity was only for the portrayal of the defeated enemy, the ancient Greeks believed it to be a symbol of rightousness.  Men had to be fighting fit and the idealised statutory was a symbol of not only their personal strength but the strength of their individual societies.  There were some textiles (albeit marble and bronze depictions of), to be found. The drapery that was in evidence on the female figures suggested fabrics of a gossamer fineness that must have been very beautiful in real life.

It was an exhibition worth seeing, especially to admire the technical expertise of the craftsmen (or women) who could turn stone into flesh.  It also explained why such works were so radical, when now they are considered so classical.  Sadly few of the Greek originals survive and many were copies - but copies by Romans so still pretty ancient.

The exhibition continues until 5 July 2015.

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