Last Wednesday I finally went to the Defining Beauty exhibition in the British Museum. The show has deservedly received a lot of attention in the press and with the exhibition due to close on 5th July (it seems almost as though the gods that have been gathered there knew what a momentous date in Greek history that would be) I know there isn’t really any need for a new one so I hope that you’ll indulge my sharing a few impressions here. Seeing so many of the most famous of Greek sculptures together in one place – some of which I only knew from photos – beautifully lit and without too many people bustling around to spoil it was almost as magical as I’d been hoping it would be. I came away with my head spinning with ancient sculpture and painted pottery and if it’s only now that I’ve got around to posting something about it it’s because I needed to let the impressions settle before I worked out what I really thought of it all.
The exhibition was well laid out with plenty of interesting and thought provoking juxtaposing of pieces and the calibre of artworks on display meant it could hardly be anything other than a visual treat. Some of the things I enjoyed seeing most were the bronze Apoxyomenos (athlete scraping off dust and oil), recently fished out of the sea near Croatia, a miniature bronze Zeus and a modern attempt to recreate a gold Athena by Pheidias (the 5th C Athenian artist responsible for the Parthenon sculpture), known only from literary sources.
I did have a few minor reservations about how certain pieces were arranged. Firstly it did seem something of a missed chance putting the statue of the Roman matron in the guise of Venus in a room before a Venus of exactly the type on which it was based. Even if the label did explain how the matron statue was a copy of a well-known prototype in idealising Classical style with an incongruously realistic looking portrait head, exactly what was going on there would have made much more sense if the actual Venus had come first.
It also did feel rather as though the final room, with the theme “the shock of the new” (or something like that) had been arranged as a bit of an afterthought. I’m sure that can’t have been the case because that’s where two of the exhibition’s highlights were placed – the Dionysus from the east pediment of the Parthenon (moved like a lot of the exhibits from elsewhere in the BM) and the famous Belvedere Torso, on loan from the Vatican. But somehow the way the room was arranged didn’t seem to grab the attention in the way that the other rooms had and the theme – just how surprising genuinely Classical art was when it was first rediscovered in the Renaissance and then, in the case of the Parthenon marbles in the 19th C – just didn’t make the impact it could have. A sketch by Michelangelo, made in preparation for painting the Sistine Chapel, and clearly showing the interest of the Belevedere Torso, was tucked away and it seemed that most visitors were ignoring it as the made a beeline for the gift shop.
Perhaps the thing the exhibition made me reflect on most is the way that exhibitions themselves work – about the extent to which the way that statues and artworks are displayed can shape our expectations of them. From the moment you enter an exhibition called “Defining Beauty” you are primed to think about the objects you are viewing in terms of their visual allure and as you move around the rooms you are provoked by information boards, and confronted by way objects are shown side by side to think about them in these terms. You find yourself asking questions – as you are, of course supposed to – about the way that the Greeks used art to reflect on human beauty, about what types of bodies and faces the Greeks found beautiful and not so beautiful, and about whether the art itself is beautiful, and if it is, just why it is. Now, I’m absolutely not saying there is anything wrong with any of this – creating meaningful connections that make us think is exactly what exhibitions should do and this one does it well. I’m also sure that the Greeks did use art to reflect on the question of beauty, and that looking at their art is a legitimate way of trying to understand exactly how they did see such things. At the same time, though, I find it interesting to think about how the very same statues and artworks in a different setting might provoke a very different response. After leaving the exhibition I found the perfect opportunity to do just that.
I wanted to visit the Hellenistic galleries of the museum but frustratingly they were closed and wouldn’t be open until 3 o’clock. They had also been closed last time I was there – some of the few galleries that seemed not to be open which I suppose says a lot about what visitors are interested in or are thought to be. Anyway, I decided to wait this time because I really wanted to see some of the Hellenistic sculpture and, finding myself with some time to spare, I wandered rather aimlessly into a series of rooms displaying objects to do with the enlightenment. The walls were lined with book cases of rare manuscripts, the large halls filled with glass cabinets that looked like they were themselves genuine survivals of the 18th century in which all manner of scientific curiosities – rare minerals, animal specimens, scientific instruments – could be seen. It really all was incredibly fascinating. Dotted about the place were sculpted busts of eminent enlightenment scientists like Joseph Banks. And spaced fairly evenly around the sides was a rather interesting collection of ancient statues, mostly Roman, some copies of earlier Greek works of art, just like many of the statues in the Defining Beauty exhibition.
Admittedly most of these statues weren’t quite of the same artistic standard as those in the exhibition but they were still pretty impressive. One of them – a marble cupid stringing his bow, well-known from a series of Roman copes – was actually a counterpart of a very similar piece that was in the exhibition. There was also a bust of Hercules, found apparently somewhere near Vesuvius in the 18th century, that looked quite a bit like one from Hadrian’s villa in Tivoli that was also to be seen in Defining Beauty.
If this collection of 2,000 year old sculpture had been brought together in a different setting, perhaps in a different museum where it was up against less competition then I’m sure it could command the serious attention of visitors. Here, however, these statues simply served as a backdrop to the story of the enlightenment, helping to conjure up a suitable ambience of amateur gentlemanly scholarship and pioneering discovery. I was pretty much alone among the visitors in giving the statue more than a cursory glance. I was reminded of visiting the Uffizi where people tend to ignore the rather splendid collection of ancient statuary – all except for the Medici Venus, which has its own room and is meant to be marvelled at – and focus on the Renaissance paintings.
If there’s a lesson to be drawn from any of this I suppose that it’s about the way in which the setting in which artworks are displayed and our expectations in viewing them have a profound influence over the way we experience them. People really did see Greek statues differently in Renaissance Italy than they did in Enlightenment England; both cultures saw them differently than we do and we see them differently whether we’re looking at them in in a display about the 18th Century or a thematic exhibition. Thinking away our preconceptions is the big challenge in really trying to get at how the ancient Greeks might have seen their statues.
I believe that imagining them not in a museum but rather in bustling public places surrounded by the buzz of daily life is a start. If you’ve been to the Defining Beauty exhibition then try just for a moment what impact the exhibition would have it was transported piece for piece and set up amid the chaos at Terminal One, Heathrow Airport, Kings Cross Station or in your local Sainsbury’s. I’m not saying that’s exactly what it was like to see these statues in their original context – without the distractions of smartphones people might actually have noticed them for one thing – but in many ways I believe that’s quite a bit closer to the way the ancients would have encountered them than the rarefied modern museum experience. While bringing us physically so close to ancient statues and other artworks there’s a certain irony that museum exhibitions – even fantastic ones like Defining Beauty – can take us so far away from the way these works were originally experienced.