Musclebound Ancient Greek Pin Ups

BY ELEANOR JAMES

Looking back over the past 100 years we can see all the fashions that came and went. It was no different in ancient Greece. The different time periods in the history of ancient Greece present different techniques, and new approaches to representing human anatomy.

Grave stele are statues that were used as gravestones by the ancient Greeks. They have also been used as offerings to gods, or as memorials to particular people or families. They are mainly described as ‘kouros’ (for male statues), or ‘kore’ (for female statues). They didn’t attempt to portray an individual, but simply a beautiful being, a perfect specimen of a man or woman. The first free-standing sculpture we are going to look at is a memorial stele called ‘Sounion Kouros’ (named after the place he was found). He comes from the geometric period dating to around 600 BC. This period is a time range in Greek art where we see a focus on the use of symmetry, geometric shapes, and relatively shallow carving. Looking especially at the torso of the figure we can see the very simplified outlining of the muscles that are carved angularly and deliberately symmetrical. You could almost play noughts and crosses on those abs!

Sounion Kouros, National Archaeological Museum of Athens
Sounion Kouros, National Archaeological Museum of Athens

To outline the differences in muscle presentation across time periods, we can draw a comparison between the ‘Sounion Kouros’ and the ‘Laocoön and his  Sons’, a statue from the Hellenistic period of Greece that dates to around 200 BC. If we focus on the main character, Laocoön, you can immediately see a difference in the depiction of muscles. They are not regimented or symmetrical, like those of the ‘Sounion Kouros’. Laocoön’s muscles are deeply carved, and there seems to be a great number of them on the side of his abdomen. We see something completely different being accomplished. The ‘Sounion Kouros’ came from an artistic time that praised symmetry, and in doing so, often bypassed realism. Laocoön comes from a time when there was a dedication to telling a story, mainly through the expression of emotion and movement.

Laocoön and his Sons, the Vatican
Laocoön and his Sons, the Vatican

There are two points that were important to the very different time periods:

1) The meaning of the statue

2) The creation of a ‘perfect’ physique

Both sculptors deal with these points very differently, as they were influenced by the fashions of their time periods.

1) The Meaning of the Statue

The ‘Sounion Kouros’ meaning is completely different to that of ‘Laocoön and his Sons’ . Its purpose is to portray a perfect human man, to justly commemorate a real person. There is not an aim for individuality, the sculptor wishes to set in stone the perfection of a young man, so this is how he will be remembered. Though the carving is not as well developed as later pieces of Greek sculpture, this statue is not primitive. It reflect the best techniques of, as well as the artistic movement of, the geometric time period.

The meaning of ‘Laocoön and his Sons’ is very different. The sculpture was very likely a part of Tiberius’ villa, and was situated in his bath house. Tiberius was the Emperor of Rome at the time. The story depicted reflects the wrath of the gods, the power of the Emperor and it is also a very dynamic and emotional scene. Where perfect symmetrical muscles were used to honour the memory of someone through the ‘Sounion Kouros’. In the ‘Laocoön and his Sons’, the muscles are used to express the emotion and dynamics of a story.

2) The Creation of a ‘Perfect’ Physique

Sculpture can represent the idea of the ‘perfect person’ of the time. Like now and every decade that has passed there were particular body shapes and hairstyles that were seen as fashionable, and more beautiful than others. In the geometric period, symmetry, angular shapes, and spirals were seen as beautiful. This collective love of symmetry was spread across all mediums. For example, the pottery was covered in maze-like patterns and geometric shapes. The idea of a beautiful person was depicted in the art. In the ‘Sounion Kouros’ we have a perfectly proportioned and exactly symmetrical depiction of human anatomy.

At first glance the muscles of ‘Laocoön’ seem well proportioned, but he is in fact warped. His muscles are all a bit too large, a little too rounded, and his brow is very deeply carved. Whereas the sculptor of ‘Sounion’ was aiming for a beautiful depiction of a man, the sculptor of ‘Laocoön’ was looking for the perfect depiction of the scene from a story. The muscles are used as tools for the sculptor to conform with the idea of beauty at the time, or perhaps through over-exaggeration to depict an emotional and physical scene.

Both of the statues epitomise phases in ancient Greek free-standing sculpture. The sculptors warp muscles to portray either an emotional physical struggle or a perfect physique that conforms to the idea of beauty from their time period.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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