Defining Beauty

Well, the BBC did a bit to justify the licence fee last Wednesday night. First on BBC 4 TV, the amiable Quizeum (silly name, superficial content, Griff Rhys Jones trying too hard, but none the less quite fun), then a new art series with Alastair Sooke on ancient Greece, and to cap that, a programme about the British Museum’s ‘Defining Beauty’ exhibition, fronted by ‘stand-up comedian/classicist’ Natalie Haynes.

The BM has actually asked for feedback on its latest blockbuster, which I saw a couple of weeks ago, and have been pondering on and off ever since: so here goes. Sooke’s first episode was a helpful context setter, taking us from prehistoric beginnings to the very verge of what is now seen as the Golden Age of Greek sculpture, stopping with the monumental bronze pair of tyrannicides, Harmodios and Aristogeiton (I was absurdly pleased that I could remember their names), or rather to surviving marble copies of the lost original bronzes.

It was nicely put together: small boat on wine-dark sea, Evans and Schliemann, Knossos and Mycenae, etc. (though yet again I felt that the simplistic antithesis of happy, hello-clouds, kissing-swallows Minoans versus grim, warlike, not at all fluffy Mycenaeans was overdone).








But it didn’t help much with my view of ‘Defining Beauty’, which is coloured (ho ho) by the awkward fact that I don’t like the art (though I very much appreciate the craft) of classical monumental sculpture. And this without bearing in mind that all that musculature was painted over in (if the reconstructions in this exhibition and at the Ashmolean are to be relied upon) rather unrealistic and (to modern eyes) garish colours. I wasn’t sure if they painted bronze sculptures as well as marble, but apparently they did… Moreover, many of the most important pieces, like the tyrannicides, survive only as Roman copies: what has been lost/changed?

A Scythian archer, with painted surface reconstruted by archaeologist Vinzenz Brinkmann. Note the fetching patterned trews.

A Scythian archer, with painted surface as reconstructed by archaeologist Vinzenz Brinkmann. (Note the fetching patterned trews.)

The exhibition begins in medias res with the British Museum’s own ‘Discobolus’. This Roman copy of Myron’s most famous work, discovered at Hadrian’s villa at Tivoli in 1790, was acquired from the estate of the connoisseur Charles Townley (1737–1805), who himself had bought it from the Rome-based antiquarian and dealer Thomas Jenkins, who had bid for it at auction in 1792. The Townley collection must have been thrown into relative shade when the Museum was given Lord Elgin’s Parthenon sculptures in 1816, but the ‘Discobolus’, itself available in other ancient copies, was hugely influential and widely copied in a second iteration.

The Townley Discobolus. Credit: The British Museum

The Townley Discobolus. Credit: The British Museum


I felt (and I have noticed that one or two reviews also felt) that there was not enough explanation in the explanatory material on offer – unfortunate because this exhibition (unlike the delightful ‘Treasured Possessions’ at the Fitzwilliam) did have serious theoretical underpinnings. Perhaps it was all in the catalogue, which I did not buy?

I did learn some things: most notably that the convention in black-figure vases (and they had some real corkers on display!) of depicting characters in profile could be broken to demonstrate extremes of emotion, as with the face of a dying sidekick in a tussle of (I think) Heracles, lying on the ground staring out at us, mouth agape in his last agony.

It was also interesting to see in the last section, on ‘reception’, some of the responses of British artists and cognoscenti the this influx of classical works, in particular some fine sketches of musculature by poor old Benjamin Robert Haydon. But I am not much further forward on what I think about the definition of beauty, or about Greek sculpture, alas.

What I am sure about was that the Natalie Haynes programme did itself no favours by bringing in the ‘standup comedian’ element. A superficial exposition of part of the Hippias Major to a dutifully chuckling audience in an anatomy theatre added nothing to our understanding, and – more crucially – wasn’t even funny. I may not know much about art, but I know what makes me laugh. But you should (as always) go yourself to this spectacular exhibition, and try and work out what you think.


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