British Museum blog

Designing beauty

Caroline Ingham, Senior Designer: Exhibitions, British Museum

Doryphoros

Detail of a Bronze reconstruction of around 1920 by George Römer of the Doryphoros or ‘spear-bearer’ by Polykleitos, made around 440–430 BC. H 212 cm. Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, Munich

Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art is the first major temporary exhibition of sculpture at the British Museum since Hadrian: Empire & Conflict in 2008. It is also the first sculpture show in the new Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery (Room 30). For the Museum’s Exhibitions team this is the culmination of over a year of intensive work with the exhibition’s designers, Caruso St John architects and Matt Bigg, Surface 3 graphics.

Doryphoros, Diskobolos, Ilissos2

Sculptures on display in the exhibition, from left to right: Bronze reconstruction of around 1920 by George Römer of the Doryphoros or ‘spear-bearer’ by Polykleitos, made around 440–430 BC. H 212 cm. Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, Munich. Marble statue of the Diskobolos or ‘discus-thrower’. Roman copy from 2nd century AD of a bronze original of the 5th century BC, from Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli, Italy. H 169 cm, W 105 cm. British Museum, London 1805,0703.43 Ilissos, marble statue of the river god, from the west pediment of the Parthenon in Athens. Greek, about 438–432 BC. H 81.28 cm, D 56 cm. British Museum, London 1816,0610.99

The exhibition presents some of the most beautiful and best-loved classical sculpture in the Museum’s collection. It includes some key pieces that have been temporarily removed from the permanent galleries to be juxtaposed for the very first and perhaps the only time, with loans of similar international significance. The movement of such important sculptures from the permanent day-lit galleries, into the controlled lighting environment of the Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery presented the Exhibitions team with a unique opportunity to experiment with their display.

Through the design brief we challenged the designers to explore how they could present the objects differently, using dramatic lighting and by experimenting with display heights. We encouraged them to exploit the scale of the Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery, in particular the 6-metre height and the very flexible lighting system, to encourage visitors to engage with these very familiar objects in a new way and at a deeper level.

Testing fabric colours

Testing fabric colours
Marble statue of a Nereid, from the Nereid monument, Lycian, about 390–380 BC, from Xanthos (modern Günük), south-western Turkey. H 137 cm. British Museum, London 1848,1020.81

It took many months to develop the design scheme. This included trying colours and fabrics against the objects, working up scale drawings of each object group, building a scale model and mocking up full-size elements of the design. We used our new purpose-built mock-up room, adjacent to the new gallery, which has the exact ceiling and floor specification of the gallery itself, to test the plinth heights and lighting.

The result is a scheme that transforms the way we see familiar objects in the collection. The designers have achieved this through the use of colour, lighting and displaying the sculpture at height. Many of the sculptures are lifted to 1.5 metres (approximately shoulder height) and our relationship to them is immediately transformed. The objects are lit from the ceiling track and not the space around them. This privileges them and makes them visible on key vistas – for instance, the Amazon can be seen at the west end of the gallery at a distance of 20 metres or more.

Dionysos

Sculptures on display in the exhibition Foreground: Marble statue of Dionysos from the east pediment of the Parthenon. Greek, about 438–432 BC, from the Acropolis, Athens. L 174 cm, H 127 cm. British Museum, London 1816,0610.93 Background: Belvedere Torso, 1st century BC. Marble copy after a Greek bronze, probably of the early 2nd century BC. H (including base) 156.5 cm, W 87.5 cm. Vatican Museums, Vatican City

The exhibition may not offer the definitive answer to the successful display of sculpture in all circumstances, but what it has done is given us a wonderful opportunity to display these sculptures for a short period, in a new and thought-provoking way.

Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art is on display from 26 March to 5 July 2015.

Sponsored by Julius Baer
Additional support
In memory of Melvin R Seiden
Mrs Jayne Wrightsman, OBE

Filed under: Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art, Exhibitions, , , , , , , , ,

The shock of the nude

Ian Jenkins, Exhibition Curator, British Museum

I’m currently working on the Museum’s major exhibition Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art, which opens 26 March 2015. When you see the sculptures on display, you might be forgiven for thinking that the standard dress for men, in ancient Athens especially, was a state of undress. The Greeks, if their art is anything to go by, spent a lot of time starkers.

Although we must separate art from life, nevertheless, they enjoyed many more occasions for nudity than any other European civilisation before or since. The reason why they performed athletics in the nude was said to be because, in the early Olympic Games, a runner lost his knickers and as a result also lost the race. That story may be true or not but either way, it doesn’t explain the true nature of Greek athletic nudity as an expression of social, moral and political values.

The Westmacott Athlete

The Westmacott Athlete. Roman marble copy of a Greek bronze original, 1st century AD. 1857,0807.1

The circumstances in which men and boys appeared naked were dictated by an exclusive attachment to certain values held by an elite ‘club’ of male citizens. To be naked was not the same as to be nude. The first befits manual workers or those engaged in lewd behaviour. Nudity by contrast was the uniform of the righteous. When a young man in ancient Athens exposed his athletic body to his peers, he was not asserting his sexuality, rather, he was demonstrating his qualification to compete in athletics and at the same time to be worthy of putting on a second skin of bronze and defending his city on the battlefield. Such young men were called Kaloi and Agathoi, that is to say, the beautiful and the good. Death in battle was the Kalos Thanatos or the beautiful death.

There is an interesting anecdote recorded in the life of the 5th-century BC philosopher Socrates, when he meets a fellow citizen Epigenes by chance. Socrates remarked tactlessly that his friend was looking rather chubby, which was rich coming from Socrates who, although he was a brave soldier, was notoriously pug-faced and pot-bellied. Epigenes told Socrates it wasn’t his business. He was now not in the army and, as a private citizen, he didn’t have to go to the gymn. Socrates replies that Epigenes owed it to his city and himself to be as fit and beautiful as possible. It was, said Socrates, the moral duty of every citizen to maintain himself in readiness in case called upon to defend his city. And besides, Epigenes was obliged to keep himself as pretty as he could be, while he was still young. The Greek body beautiful was a moral condition and one to which only the Greeks among the peoples of the ancient world were attached. Neither the Egyptians, nor the Assyrians, Persians or the Cypriots cultivated in art and in life ideal nudity.

Bronze statuette of a veiled and masked dancer

Bronze statuette of a veiled and masked dancer. Hellenistic, 3rd–2nd century BC. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. 1972.118.95

The ideal Greek male body, then, is at the very heart of the Greek experience. Female nudity was much rarer than male nudity and the wives of well-to-do citizens were expected to stay indoors preserving their reputations with their pale complexions. Sculptors become increasingly skilled at showing the body beneath thin tissues of drapery and to judge from such objects as terracotta figurines and white marble sculpture, women were adept at flaunting their figures using drapery as a means of exaggerating their shape and so drawing attention to the body beneath. Aphrodite, goddess of love, is alone among the female Olympian gods in being represented naked. Hers is an ambiguous presence, however, for crouching or standing at her bath she appears to lure us in to erotic pleasure, only then to punish us for having the presumption to gaze upon her divine beauty.

Marble statue of a naked Aphrodite crouching at her bath

Marble statue of a naked Aphrodite crouching at her bath, also known as Lely’s Venus. Roman copy of a Greek original, 2nd century AD. Royal Collection Trust/Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2015. 1963.1029.1

To conclude, the Greek body is a pictorial sign through which the Greek experience is communicated. Nudity in ancient Greece was all part of an obligation to promote moral values that were amplified and endorsed through the culture of athletics and military training.

Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art opens 26 March 2015.
Sponsored by Julius Baer
Additional support
In memory of Melvin R Seiden
Mrs Jayne Wrightsman, OBE

Filed under: Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art, Exhibitions, , , , , , ,

London, a world city in 20 objects: Shiva Nataraja, the god Shiva dancing in a ring of flames

Shiva NatarajaRichard Blurton, British Museum

Shiva Nataraja

Shiva Nataraja

Fine bronze sculptures of the gods of Hinduism were produced in the Chola period in southern India for use as processional images. These portable representations of the gods could be taken from the temple, dressed and decked with garlands, and then paraded through the streets, enabling all to have a beneficial view of them. Within the temple itself, images of the Hindu deities, such as Vishnu, Shiva and Durga, were venerated in images of stone and these never left the sanctuary. However, bronze images, such as this one of Shiva, Lord of the Dance, could easily be carried on platforms and paraded through the streets by devotees. Processions carrying such images and with many thousands of participants, are still a feature of south Indian temple festivals in towns such as Madurai and Chidambaram.

Lord Shiva is depicted in this famous dance form as the deity at the extremes of time, the lord who crushes ignorance underfoot and who ushers out one cycle of existence and dances in a new one. In Indian lore, time is cyclical and made up of endless iterations and this image shows the god at the end of one cycle and the beginning of the next.

The dance of Shiva at this moment of dissolution and of creation, is conceived of as full of wild movement. The dreadlocks of the god (usually discreetly tied up on top of his head) fly out unchecked around him, providing some indication of the fury of his circular dance – though one foot is, nevertheless held up for his devotees to shelter beneath. The flame he holds in his upper left hand represents the destruction at the end of one cycle, while the sound of the drum in his upper right brings in the new cycle. Not for nothing has this image of the god, full of cosmic symbolism, become the one that people internationally associate with Hinduism.

This was first published in the London Evening Standard on 22 November 2012.

The Shiva Nataraja is on display in Room 33: China, South Asia and Southeast Asia

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Pigment and power dressing in Roman Egypt

Limestone sculpture of Horus from Roman EgyptElisabeth R. O’Connell, curator, British Museum

‘That’s one weird looking bird,’ grinned an American student on one of my tours of the Ancient Egypt and Sudan Department study collection for university students last year.

And to Egyptology students he is. And to students of Classical Archaeology too. But that’s rather the point. Roman Egypt (30 BC-AD 642) witnessed some of the most interesting, innovative and transformative combinations of traditions in the ancient world.

The god sits casually on his throne, one sandal-clad foot forward, his knees apart and draped in a garment. From the waist down, he could be any of a number of senior Olympian deities, or Roman emperors masquerading as such. He wears a feathered mail armour shirt that ends just above his elbows. His arms, now broken off, would have held symbols of power, perhaps an orb and sceptre. His cloak, pushed back over his shoulders, is fastened with a circular broach. From the waist up, his costume belongs to military deities and, especially, Roman emperors, who were also worshipped in temples dedicated to them throughout the empire. The head, however, places us firmly in an Egyptian context.

Limestone sculpture of Horus from Roman Egypt

Limestone sculpture of Horus from Roman Egypt

It’s Horus, the sun god and divine representative of the living king in ancient Egyptian tradition. His head is that of a falcon, rendered in naturalistic style with the bird’s distinctive facial markings articulated by the carving and also traces of paint. His eyes, however, are strangely human; instead of being placed on the sides of the head, like any ‘real’ bird, they are frontal, and his incised pupils tilt his gaze upward. In an imaginative turn, the feathers of the falcon’s neck blend into the scales of the mail shirt. In the top of his head is a hole, into which a (probably metal) crown once fit.

Big Bird, as I think of him, has been off public display since 1996 when the gallery he was formerly displayed in was reconfigured to create the Great Court. Since I arrived at the Museum in 2007, he’s been the culmination of my tours for university students, giving us the opportunity to explore cultural identity through different kinds of objects from Roman Egypt. We look at magical papyri written in Egyptian and Greek, with some of the Egyptian words written in Old Coptic, that is, the Egyptian language written in Greek script. Why the glosses of Egyptian words in Greek script? Because in magical spells it was very important to say the words correctly or else the spell wouldn’t work. And Greek script, unlike Egyptian, represented the vowels ensuring that the words said aloud were accurately pronounced at a time when literacy in Egyptian scripts was on the wane. We also look at mummy portraits belonging firmly in the Roman tradition of individualised commemorative portraiture, but made for the specific purpose of placing over the face of a mummy, a feature that belongs unmistakably to Egyptian funerary practice. We see the same combination of traditions in this limestone sculpture of Horus and other contemporary depictions.

The opportunity to get the sculpture on public display arose last year when the Gayer-Anderson cat was scheduled to travel to Paris, then Shetland, for exhibition. Big Bird would get his very own case at the top of a ramp, amid other sculpture more readily identifiable as ‘Egyptian’ in the British Museum Egyptian Sculpture Gallery.

While preparing the display, we also had a chance to identify some of the pigments that are apparent to the naked eye: his yellow arms, black pupils and ‘eye-liner,’ garments in two different shades of green, and his red and black throne. Using an innovative imaging technique, we were also able to detect the pigment used for his armour, and it turned out to be one of the most valued pigments of the ancient world, Egyptian blue.

The image on the right was taken with an infrared camera. The bright white areas show where traces of ‘Egyptian blue’ pigment survive

The image on the right was taken with an infrared camera. The bright white areas show where traces of ‘Egyptian blue’ pigment survive

Although no longer apparent to the naked eye, it shows up in visible-induced luminescence imaging by British Museum scientist, Joanne Dyer. In addition to the strange (to us) combination of Graeco-Roman-Egyptian elements, he would also have been rather garishly painted.

A colour reconstruction based on pigment analysis suggests how the statue originally may have looked

A colour reconstruction based on pigment analysis suggests how the statue originally may have looked

Horus – I should really stop thinking of him as Big Bird – will not go back into the study collection when the Gayer-Anderson cat returns, but instead join a touring exhibition on the Roman Empire which will give visitors to the exhibition in locations including Bristol, Norwich and Coventry, that is, in former Roman Britain, an opportunity to see a selection of objects from Antinoupolis and other cities from the former empire’s southern frontier, Roman Egypt.

For their collaboration and enthusiasm, I thank Joanne Dyer, Tracey Sweek, Michelle Hercules, Antony Simpson, Susan Holmes, Paul Goodhead, Robert Frith, Evan York, Emily Taylor and Kathleen Scott from the American Research Center in Egypt.

The sculpture of Horus will be on display until 10 December 2012, in Room 4

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