The most contentious exhibition in Britain?

The graceful figure of Aphrodite, crouching against the glare of the spotlight. Myron’s discus-thrower, radiantly white amongst the shadows of the room. Phidias’ marble torso of a river god, leaning against a flow of water turned to stone. The opening display at the British Museum’s Defining Beauty: The Body in Ancient Greek Art is spectacular. In one single room stand some of the most renowned and influential works of art the world has ever known. It is a room dedicated to the glorification of the human body, to the way the Ancient Greeks revolutionised the perception of nakedness and formed a new reverence for the nude. 

The room is in darkness, save for the spotlights focused on these masterpieces, and on the walls are projected quotations from some of the Western world’s most important figures; Socrates, Pythagoras, Plato, Homer, Sappho, Bacchylides, and Theognis. It reminds us that the Ancient Greeks have helped to form the society we now live in, not just through their art, but also through politics, literature, theatre, philosophy, mathematics and science. 

As the exhibition progresses, we are confronted with plaster casts of familiar statues painted and gilded in bright, patterned colours. Greek sculpture was not always a dazzling white. Traces of pigments have led experts to believe that they were brightly coloured and often heavily patterned. These modern reconstructions are shocking for those unfamiliar with this actuality. The Ashmolean Museum has had the very same display of painted ancient Greek sculpture in their Cast Gallery since January 2015. The problem with both displays remains the same nonetheless; we have no exact evidence of the colours, of the decorative designs or the way the ancient Greeks arranged these forms. The modern colour reconstructions, therefore, are no closer to the ancient reality than the commonly admired white marble.

The exhibition develops into a study of Greek society, ordinary day-to-day life, death, marriage and even the gender divide. There is an extravagant display of Greek ceramics and sculpted figurines. The exhibition exposes the influence of the Ancient Greeks not only on the Renaissance, but also on eastern art forms and the ancient kingdom of Gandhara, where it helped invent the third century AD image of Buddha.

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The exhibition finishes with another two well-known sculptures; the Belvedere Torso from the Vatican Museum and the figure of Dionysus from the British Museum’s very own Elgin Marbles collection. With a range of collected sculpture from Croatia, Germany and Italy; it is noticeable that the Greeks themselves have not submitted any sculpture or artefacts for the exhibition. A large percentage of the exhibition already belongs to the British Museum, including several marble metopes and pediment sculptures from the notorious collection of Elgin’s marbles. These marbles in particular stand as examples of supreme artistic distinction amongst some of the finest samples in European art history. Yet there is the sense that this exhibition, focused on the defining of human beauty, is in fact politically
motivated. 

This rich display of Greek artefacts is a reminder to the world that the British Museum is not the only institution who owns large amounts of ancient sculpture. It professes its deep admiration and reverence for antiquity and attempts to show the way in which this ancient civilisation has shaped societies throughout the centuries, giving the entire Western world a rightful claim over its heritage. This stems from the 200 year old debate over the ownership of the Elgin Marbles, housed in the British Museum’s Duveen Gallery. 

The Elgin Marbles, hacked off the Parthenon and ‘legally’ sold to the government in 1816, have been at the centre of political tensions between Britain and Greece for almost two centuries. In the 1930s, they underwent a horrifying ‘cleaning’ causing Greek and international outrage. Ordinary housework acids were used on these 2500 year old sculptures, scraping off a layer of marble and damaging some of the detail. Despite a very frail legal claim and a newly built Acropolis museum in Athens waiting for the return of the marbles, the British government has refused to refute their ownership of these works. 

It is no great wonder then that the Greeks want nothing to do with this new exhibition. As spectacular as it is, Defining Beauty is the British Museum’s attempt to convince the world that the Elgin marbles, along with its vast collection of Greek sculpture, belongs and always will belong to them.