Dr Katherine Harloe, Associate Professor of Classics and Intellectual History, University of Reading
Browsing the exhibition Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art on a rainy afternoon, an Athenian red-figure mixing-bowl caught my attention. It shows the death of Kaineus, a mythical Thessalian hero who had the misfortune to be present at the wedding feast of Peirithoos, King of the Lapiths, and his bride Hippodameia. The celebrations famously ended in a fracas when the centaurs among the wedding guests became drunken and violent, attempting to rape their hosts’ wives. The ensuing battle, which the Lapiths won, came to stand for the conquest of savagery by civilisation. It features as such on the decoration of important civic and religious buildings, including the Parthenon and the temple of Apollo Epikourios at Bassai. On this vessel, made for mixing wine at a drinking party, it warns of the dangers of overindulgence.
Kaineus was killed during the fighting, though not (so Ovid, who gives us a poetic account of the battle in his Metamorphoses, says) before he had dispatched six centaurs to their deaths. He was a difficult to kill because his skin could not be pierced by sword or spear. In the end the centaurs could only overcome him by hammering him into the ground with rocks and tree trunks. The vase shows this moment – the helpless Kaineus looks up in dismay at two centaurs bearing down on him with large boulders. But within the myth, the warrior’s invulnerability supersedes and compensates for a previous vulnerability. For, as the hero Nestor recounts, Kaineus had been born a girl, Kainis, who was raped by the god Poseidon and in return granted the fulfilment of one wish. She asked to become male, and in granting her a masculine body Poseidon also made it one that could not be penetrated.
Scholars of ancient gender and sexuality have made much of this myth’s association of impenetrability with the male sex. Its popularity in Athens might also tell us something about that society, where the law protected male citizen bodies from violation while overlooking violence towards others. But Kaineus/Kainis can also help us think through some of the issues around the sculpted male and female forms that provide the highlights of this exhibition. An impenetrable body which can be hammered into the ground sounds like nothing so much as a statue. Ovid also hints at this when he describes the centaur Latreus’s sword bouncing and shattering off Kaineus as if it had struck ‘a body of marble’.
The exhibition gives us marble bodies aplenty, male and female, as well as several in bronze. But the male and female bodies we encounter in the exhibition are different in several ways. Most obvious to me, and perhaps striking to most visitors, is the contrast of clothed and unclothed. Male figures, from the beautiful bronze Apoxyomenos (‘sweat-scraper’) in the first room to the Belvedere Torso at its end, are all presented nude. The females – unless they happen to be Aphrodite, or to be modelled on her – are clothed.
Not that the drapery on the female statues always conceals much. In the case of the nymphs from the Nereid Monument, belly, breasts, thighs, are all visible through the moistened folds of their clothes. Their eroticism is obvious, even without the colour that would once have created the illusion of living, breathing flesh. But there is a paradox here – it is often said of the Greek male sculptural nude that its eroticism is downplayed. For a statue like the Apoxyomenos, nudity does not equal nakedness but – as Director of the British Museum Neil MacGregor puts it in the exhibition catalogue – ‘a suit of morally charged new clothes’. The female body, by contrast, tends to be undressed even when dressed.
Does this tell us something about ancient Greek attitudes to women, or does it have more to do with our own ways of viewing male and female bodies? Michael Squire, the classical art historian whose voice is one of the first you hear on the exhibition’s multimedia guide, has argued that sexualised responses to naked Aphrodites overlook their religious significance, her status as a goddess and the awe in which ancient worshippers would have held her image. Now that mainstream advertising has begun to serve up naked or near-naked male bodies to sell everything from designer underwear to fizzy drinks, can we look at Greek male nudes afresh, with greater sensitivity to their erotic charge? The distinctions between nude and naked, male and female, are not as clear cut as they first seem, but still make me uncomfortable. Perhaps that’s why, of all the beautiful objects in the exhibition, I am most drawn to the figurines from Tanagra – miniature statuettes of heavily draped, yet graceful women, with fashionable hats and hairstyles, dolled up to appear in public yet somehow conveying a womanly world and messages all of their own.
Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art is at the British Museum
until 5 July 2015.
Sponsored by Julius Baer
In memory of Melvin R Seiden
Mrs Jayne Wrightsman, OBE
The accompanying book is available from the British Museum shop online.