Pursuing the perfect body obsessed the ancient Greeks almost as much as it does modern-day Californians. Los Angeles, then, the home of two Olympics and countless health spas, should find a special resonance in a major exhibition opening Sunday at the County Museum of Art.
As shown in "The Human Figure in Early Greek Art," the beauty of the body captivated Greek artists, who by the 5th Century BC would perfect the realistic style that set the standard for subsequent Western art. Impressed later generations called that achievement Classical , and its continuing influence is seen today from the heroic Statue of Liberty to the endearing plaster statuettes in suburban back yards.
The show's 67 artifacts, including marble sculptures, bronzes, terra-cotta figures and painted pottery, reveal how early Hellenic art matured into the Classical style. Gathered from 18 Greek museums, most of the items have never been exhibited before in the United States.
In depicting the Greeks' favorite subjects--athletes, maidens, mythic heroes--all the pieces seek to express an idealized vision of the human body, though the styles are different, and progress through the Geometric, Orientalizing, Archaic and Early Classical periods.
"What we really want to show is the evolution of the human figure from the very first moment of what we call Greek art (in the 11th Century BC)," said Yannis Tzedakis, the Greek government's director of antiquities, who accompanied the exhibit to Los Angeles.
Classical art--produced in the age of Socrates, Pericles and Aristophanes--is not included in the exhibit. Tzedakis said curators assembled the collection intending to show the change in artistic technique in the preceding 500 years that made the Classical achievement possible.
While distinctive at the outset in its economy and fluidity, Greek art, as seen in an 8th-Century BC vase of the Geometric period , was similar to that of other ancient societies in its depiction of people. Features were strictly uniform, and artists drew from a small number of conventional expressions and poses to convey action and emotion. Bodies were rendered out of proportion, with triangular torsos, heads in profile and overlong arms and legs. Works of this period, interestingly, have influenced modern art that shies away from literalism.
By the 5th Century BC, however, artists could depict with stunning verisimilitude the individual body in motion. The marble sculpture of the hero Theseus abducting the Amazon queen Antiope captures not only the contorted postures of the action but the bone structure of the faces and the ripples of the clothing as well.
Driving this artistic development was a cultural belief in the importance of the individual, Tzedakis said.
"They are interested in the human figure, for this is the heart of the (humanistic) philosophy. It is the center of life," he said.
Added Tina Oldknow, the museum's associate curator of ancient art: "Since the gods are in human form, what could be more pleasing to them than the sight of a perfectly formed human?"
The humans striving for perfection come in all sizes. A 6th Century BC bronze statuette of a running girl, made in Sparta, is but 4 3/4 inches tall. Wearing a miniskirt that seems 2,500 years ahead of its time, her well-muscled legs reflect the Spartan ideal of beauty.
Twenty times larger than the running girl are three marble statues of \o7 korai,\f7 or maidens, dating from the late 6th and early 5th centuries, that were found on the Athenian Acropolis. Though convention kept female figures clothed while depicting males naked, sculptors were able to reveal their subjects' forms by clothing them in garments Tzedakis calls "see-through."
Companion statues are the \o7 kouroi,\f7 or young men from the 6th Century BC, whose bodies display increasing realism while retaining formulaic hair styles, poses and the ubiquitous grin of the period's statuary, the "Archaic smile."
Ceramics include red and black figure vases, as well as containers modeled in the form of human heads and bodies. A 6th-Century perfume vase, for example, is made in the shape of a kneeling boy.
Symbolically, the last artifact in the exhibit is a 5th-Century marble relief of a boy athlete, crowning himself in victory. The individual has won over the uniform.
While "The Human Figure" is an art exhibit, the process it reflects was not limited to artistic technique. "We can't expect to have this evolution without the evolution of philosophy, of the theater, of architecture and even of everyday life," said Tzedakis. "It was the formation of what we call the democratic system."
Thus, for an exhibit of antiquities, "The Human Figure" has an unusually dynamic effect. A walk through its four rooms creates a sense of increasing activity, because the human forms not only grow more lifelike, but they are depicted in ever more ambitious forms of motion. In this exhibition, one can glimpse the ancient imagination giving way to a seemingly modern self-consciousness.
"The Human Figure in Early Greek Art," which is on exhibit through Jan. 15, was organized by the Greek Ministry of Culture and the National Gallery of Art in Washington. The exhibit has already been displayed at the National Gallery and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo., and will move to the Art Institute of Chicago and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston before returning to Greece.