Monday, August 20, 2012

Sensual Geometry: The Development of the Male Nude in Ancient Greek Art

Sensual Geometry: The Development of the Male Nude in Ancient Greek Art

By Ann Aptaker

This article is adapted from Ms. Aptaker’s lectures in Art History at the New York Institute of Technology

Let’s face it, step into a museum gallery of ancient Greek statuary and painted vases and you could get the impression that for about five hundred years from around 600 BCE (this article will use the newer designation of BCE, Before the Common Era) the male population of Greece lived life undressed.1 There are athletes in the nude; soldiers in the nude; handsome young men who were famous for merely being handsome in the nude. By contrast, the Pharaohs, nobles and aristocratic men of ancient Egypt wouldn’t be caught dead in representations of themselves without a skirt or drape of some kind that indicated their rank or stature in society. Ditto for the men of Mesopotamia. Later Romans, though they mimicked the nude statuary of Greece, just as often commissioned statues of themselves in warriors’ armor or aristocratic drapery to call attention to their military heroism or political importance.

So why was the attitude of the ancient Greeks so different from other ancient cultures regarding nudity? Blame it on math.

If that answer seems facile, consider this: the great fifth century BCE sculptor Polykleitos wrote a treatise called The Canon, or The Canon of Proportion, which dictated specific mathematical proportions and relationships for all parts of the human body. Polykleitos based his formulae on work attributed to the sixth century BCE mathematician Pythagoras, whose noted theorem is still in use today.

But Polykleitos’ Canon, brilliant as it was and is, simply codified a way of thinking, a way of expressing beauty, which had been evolving in Greece for centuries. We can actually see the beginning of that way of thinking, and we can marvel that it appeared at a time when chaos and violence left Greek civilization hanging by a thread.

The fall of the Mycenaean civilization on mainland Greece, beginning around 1200 BCE, ushered in The Greek Dark Age. Invaders from the north and from Ionia in the east overran the once splendid Bronze Age heroic civilization and replaced it with the violence of constant warfare and the displacement of whole populations of sacked towns and villages. This miserable situation lasted over two hundred years, but around 1000 BCE things slowly started to settle down. Daily life was still bleak and dangerous, violence continued, but here and there a revitalizing culture started to take root, mainly through items of daily necessity; after all, even if your community no longer needs palaces, your little hut still need cups and jars and bowls. It is in early Greek pottery that we see the beginnings of a way of thinking that eventually became the ancient world’s most sophisticated expression of the beauty of the human figure, particularly the male nude.

Fig. 1 - Proto-geometric amphora, ca. 950 BCE,
terra cotta, 13 ¾” high. British Museum, London

This amphora (Fig.1) dates from about 950 BCE. The style, called Proto-geometric, is simple and strictly utilitarian: lines and shapes moving around the surface of the pot. The Proto-geometric period, roughly the tenth century BCE, sets the foundation for everything to come in Greek art.2 In this pot and others of the period, we see the beginnings of the Greek fascination with rational mathematics, especially geometry. It all started with everyday utensils decorated with simple lines.

Though other ancient cultures also decorated their pottery with similar lines and shapes, what’s new here, and what’s uniquely Greek, is a consciously harmonious relationship between the shape of the vase and the surface decoration. Each facet of the decoration occupies a specific part of the structure and is meant to delineate the volumes, which are themselves in harmonious proportion to one another:
-the solid black of the tall neck with an encircling checkered pattern positioned like a necklace;

-the solid bands on the shoulder;

-the undulating wave around the belly; and the swelling shape of the belly contained by another solid band below;

-the empty “reserved” space above the foot giving everything above a visual lightness, a weightlessness;

-the whole thing resting comfortably and securely on the solid band of the foot.

Note that I’ve used the names of human body parts for the parts of the vase: neck, shoulder, belly, foot. The Greeks believed that the organic structure of pottery is analogous to the organic, balanced structure of human form and that both could be explained by the principles of geometry.

Though mathematics and geometry are rational, for the Greeks, even as early as the Proto-geometric period, mathematics and geometry are not cold. The Greeks gave a philosophical warmth to mathematics, marrying the principles of rationality to the spirit of philosophy, which they eventually developed into the Classical idea of Humanism.

During the centuries prior to the Athenian development of democracy in 508 BCE, the city-states of Greece, like all other ancient civilizations, were ruled by Kings. The Egyptian Pharaoh, for example, was considered a living god on earth. But the Greek relationship with even their most powerful or despotic leaders was quite different from that of other kingdoms. The Greek kings regarded themselves human beings, mere mortals, not gods on earth. If the Greek kings had a divine connection to any of their gods it was because their human mother or father mated with a god or goddess and the resulting child was at best a half-god, called a demi-god, and only because of the human process of sexual relations and childbearing (the gods, among themselves, could reproduce parthenogenically). This great difference in outlook, that human beings, not the gods, were, as the Greek philosopher Protagoras wrote, “the measure of all things” on earth, is what enabled the Greeks to unite the rationality of mathematics to the warmth of humanist philosophy and, by extension, to an appreciation of the human body as an ideal evocation of that unity.

Fig. 2A

Fig. 2B

Figs. 2A and 2B-Dipylon Krater, from the Dipylon cemetery,
Athens, ca. 740 BCE.
3’ 4 1/2” height; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

By the eighth century BCE, a full blown Geometric style was ascendant, as we see in this monumental krater from the Dipylon cemetery in Athens (Fig 2A). This enormous pot, standing nearly three and a half feet tall, was not for household use but served as a grave marker, much as a headstone is used today. The painted scenes represent the funeral service and mourning (upper register of figures) and funeral procession or military parade (lower register of figures) honoring the deceased gentleman we see lying atop the funeral bier (Fig. 2B, center). The rational properties of geometry informed the physical proportions of the vase (which are in perfect balance here) and to rendering the figures, which are expressed in a purely geometric language: ovals for heads; triangles for the upper body; lozenge shapes for hips and legs; rectangles or lines for arms. The upraised arms of the female mourners (who are tearing out their hair in grief) on either side of the funeral bier bend at pure right angles to form rectangles and near-squares.

Though this use of everyday shapes to render human (and animal) form may seem simplistic, a century or so of drawing in this manner gave Greek artists a deep understanding of the properties of shape and the proportional relationships between parts of the human body. This confidence, together with the Greek belief that human beings and human experience are the central issues of daily existence, that the “here and now” is more immediately relevant than eternity, which was the province of the immortal gods in any event and about which human beings had little or no say, gave Greek artists the skills and state of mind to make the next leap in their remarkable development of the nude figure.

Fig. 3-Kouros, ca. 590 BCE; Marble, 6’ ½” height;
Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY

While it’s fair to say that the development of Greek art and its emphasis on the human and not the godly was unique in the ancient world, it must also be acknowledged that Greek artists did not develop in isolation. Though this kouros (Fig. 3), meaning a statue of a nude male youth, exhibits those values we can identify as uniquely Greek, it also exhibits the influence of Egypt, the dominant power and culture through much of ancient history. Like Egyptian statuary,3 this kouros stands in a rigid frontal pose, his hands clenched at his sides and with one leg forward.

But the similarity ends there. Unlike Egyptian figures, which were meant to express an unchanging eternal, this kouros makes visible the Greek philosophy of male beauty, harmonious of face and body, and above all active and athletic.

To begin with, the young man is nude, whereas Egyptian figures were clothed. Moreover, Egyptian standing figures were anchored to a supporting block of stone,4 but this kouros is free standing. This achievement is not only technical, it represents a philosophical expression as well.

Dealing first with the technical aspect, the balance necessary to achieve a free standing figure of stone was a result of the Greeks’ deep understanding of geometry and its properties. From the lessons inherent in the tectonics of pottery to the painted geometric shapes which earlier expressed human form, by the sixth century BCE, the Archaic period, Greek sculptors were prepared to produce life-sized figures that stood as confidently on their feet as did living human beings.

Aesthetically, the kouros in Figure 3 is purely and utterly Greek. It is created through geometric forms: we still see the oval for the head; a triangular torso; and lozenges to form the legs. And philosophically it is Greek, expressing an idea of youthful maleness not as godly or heroic but as beautiful. This beauty is an expression of the ideal of harmony and balance, two attributes of rational mathematics which the Greeks believed contributed to the beauty of all things, including thought itself.

By the beginning of the Classical period, when Greek cultural confidence was at its height and no longer under the restraining influence of Egypt, Greek philosophy and art achieved a sophistication—and in art, the technical ability—which enabled philosophers and artists to address that most human of experiences, sensuality.

Fig. 4-Kritios Boy; ca. 480 BCE, Athens,
Marble, 2’ 10” height. Acropolis Museum, Athens

This early Classical figure called the Kritios Boy, dating to about 480 BCE, shares the one leg forward/frontal stance of his kouros predecessors, but here the geometry of the assembled shapes is more relaxed, more natural. Kritios Boy is believed to be the first sculpted human figure to employ contrapposto, meaning “shifting of weight.” The sculptor understood that human beings do not stand in rigid poses (except when at “attention” like soldiers); real human beings shift their weight and their body, positioning themselves along the vertical axis of the spine.

The contrapposto of the Kritios Boy is created by:
-the slight dip of his right hip as he balances his weight on his left (rear) leg;

-the bend of his forward leg at the knee, at ease;

-his head turned slightly to his right, unlike the stiff-necked Archaic kouroi.

This more natural posture, derived from the rational application of mathematics to achieve a balance of proportion, gives Kritios Boy not just a more natural appearance but a sensual one. What is being celebrated here isn’t heroism or power; what’s being celebrated is beauty of form and flesh; beauty as a philosophical ideal of life expressed through harmonious proportions, ease of posture, calmness of expression.

Only about thirty years after the unknown sculptor created the Kritios Boy, Polykleitos himself brought the spirit of Greek art to full magnificence with a series of sculptures that are masterpieces of his Canon of Proportion. In his Doryphoros (Spear Carrier) (Fig. 5), Polykleitos expressed harmony, balance and beauty through strict adherence to his mathematical formulae for the proportions and geometric masses of the nude figure.5 With mathematics as his absolute foundation, he was then able to create a contrapposto that is assertive, giving the figure the graceful S-curve that would become iconic in Greek sculpture. Polykleitos further enhanced the grace of the contrapposto with the harmony of “cross balance”: the bent arm is diagonally opposite the straight leg, while the straight arm is diagonal to the bent leg.

Fig. 5-Doryphoros (Spear Carrier); by Polykleitos;
Marble (Roman copy after original bronze of  ca. 450 -440 BCE);
6’ 11” height, Museo ArchiologicoNazionale, Naples

But the point of all this mathematics, of this rational approach to art, was not to express a cold beauty of and strength of mind were core values of Greek Humanist philosophy.

Polykleitos’ Canon would remain the standard for Greek sculpture through its Classical and Hellenistic periods and into the art of Rome. The grace and sensuality celebrated by the Classical nude influenced later masters such as Michelangelo, whose monumental David (1501-1504) is a sensual descendent6 of Polykleitos’ contrapposto and cross balance. And though figurative art is less dominant today, the human need for sensual expression never dies. Who would have thought it could be expressed in math?

1. Female figures in Greek art were more often clothed.

2. Technical advances in pottery manufacture developed during the Proto- geometric period are further described in Richter, Gisela M.A., A Handbook of Greek Art; A Survey of the Visual Arts of Ancient Greece, Seventh Edition, Phaidon Press Ltd., London, 1974; Boardman, John, Early Greek Vase Painting, Thames and Hudson, London, 1998; and others.

3. The period of Egyptian art and history referred to encompasses the Old Kingdom, ca. 2574-2134 BCE through the New Kingdom, ca. 1550-1070 BCE, which, with the exception of the Amarna period, ca. 1353-1335 BCE, essentially set the form which was maintained throughout most of Egyptian art until the Ptolemaic period, ca. 305 BCE-6 BCE. The Ptolemaic rulers, being Greek (after the conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great), brought Greek influence into late Egyptian art. The defeat of Egypt by the Romans in 6 BCE, further Classicized Egyptian art.

4. Egyptian figures sculpted of wood or smaller than life-size figures in stone were often free-standing. The distribution and balance of weight of life-size and monumental stone figures in Egypt, however, usually necessitated an anchoring block.

5. This figure is a later copy, in marble, made in Rome for the Palestra athletic stadium in Pompeii. The original Greek statue was created cast in bronze. This situation is true of a considerable number of Greek statues, many of them originally bronze, since lost to time. Nevertheless, as far as we know, the ancient Roman sculptors were entirely faithful in their reproductions of the original Greek. Without these Roman copies, we would not know as much about the remarkable development of Greek sculpture. We are especially certain of the Romans’ accuracy of Polykleitos’ works because Roman sculptors strictly followed Polykleitos’ instructions, as written in his Canon.

6. Though the David is clearly influenced by Classical sculpture, and in particular by Polykleitos, Michelangelo had no taste for the mathematical approach to human form. His David is reflective of his belief that organic form already exists within a block of stone and it is the sculptor’s art to bring it out. The proportions of the David, therefore, are not mathematically accurate, though the visual effect is certainly natural to the eye.

Ann Aptaker has been an arts professional for over twenty years as curator, exhibition designer and art writer in museums and galleries on the east and west coasts of the United States. In addition to her present work as an independent curator and art writer in New York, Ann is an adjunct professor of Art History at New York Institute of Technology.

Ann holds degrees from Hollins College (now Hollins University), where she graduated Cum Laude and with Departmental Honors in Art History, and and MFA from Tyler School of Art, Temple University, where she earned fellowships for both years of study.

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