Greek Art and Architecture

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Last updated: April 8, 2019

Greek society was centered on the “polis” or city-state, and it dictated what was acceptable and not. It had limitations that prevented certain members of society to partake in social life, like the women. They were not granted citizenship; it was reserved only for males.

This gendered perception led to various by-products. Women had to be fully clothed and males did not. Evidence of this can be seen through art of Archaic and Classical origin in Greece. Through sculpture it can be seen that men are by nature nude and women become nude under certain conditions.In Andrew Stewart’s book Art, Desire and the Body in Ancient Greece, he implies that nudity originated in the athletic facet of Greek life, specifically in the Olympics of the eight century. 1 The story of a runner named Orsippos of Megara who was running a race and his loincloth fell off. Art after this occurrence appears to have picked up on this and from sculptures of this period men start to appear naked.

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The figure of Kouros of Anavysos (Figure 1) is one such example of this archaic period. From this point it became popular and very desirable for men to perform athletics in the nude.Andrew Stewart is quoted as saying that, “they saw the custom as a concrete manifestation of such desirable manly attributes as courage, strength, speed, fitness, and so on, all of which ‘naturally’ create a handsome body. “2 From this it is evident that the nude male becomes a representation beauty, strength and the perfect body. Artists, from this new concept, wanted to depict the bodies of their figures as idealistic and beautiful.

Women did appear, rarely, nude when participating in sporting events or at festivals and as a result of this could not be married.Stewart states that, “unmarried Spartan girls or pathenoi… practiced athletics, singing and dancing naked at certain festivals; and participated in some processions naked as well. “3 Women did not have such a heavy following as their bodies were not permitted to be seen in such a manner. A married woman was not to be naked for social, familial and modesty reasons.

The only naked figured were those of goddesses. “Peplos Kore” (Figure 2) from 530 BCE is what a typical woman form this period would be wearing.She is modest by wearing this and the belt that gave a figure by being tied at her waist. The Classical period of the fifth century is the culmination of Greek art. The male nude is one of the greatest achievements. The artists have achieved perfection of proportion and muscular anatomy. During this time the polis evolved and it encompassed women as citizens as well.

Women also became subject matter for sculpture. The art was not a copy of exactly what the artists saw but rather an idealized expression of the idea of the perfect figure.After much, evident, analysis of the human figure artists like Polykleitos defined and canonized the perfect proportions and shape of the male figure. “Doryphoros” (Figure 3) also known as the Spear Bearer, appears very “real”, and life like, which is what the artist strived for.

His lack of clothing is central to the composition because it is representative of the “default setting” of man; nudity. 4 The female counterpart of this sculpture, by Praxiteles is “Aphordite of Knidos” (Figure 4) from 350BCE. Until this sculpture, the female form had never appeared fully nude.This might be as a result of the new ideas that were circulating the society such as humanism. The statue appears very sensual and elegant. As a result of this new idea of humanism and sensuality, it has been said that this is why the first nude female statue is that of the goddess of love. 5 This all occurred as a result of societal changes within the polis. Greeks, it appears, did not go about their daily business in the nude, but rather only in certain occasion like athletics and symposiums.

In Greek art, according to John Berger, nudity becomes “a form of dress”6, some feel comfortable and others do not.Like that of “Aphordite of Knidos”, who appears to be aware of her nudity and seems to be covering her genitals with her hand while reaching for her garment. Male statues until the Classical era were unselfconscious and appeared to be unaware of their nudity. Statues such as that of the “Kouros” and “Doryphoros” are comfortable in their “clothing” (or lack thereof). Women were not to be seen naked, and the only ones that were the ones that would not marry and entertainers, which already implied that they were of a lower class and were not seen as women.Women were supposed to be proper and elegant and were not to reveal themselves to anyone other than their husband of their families. She was under control of the man. With the later artists portraying women in the nude, it seemed to emancipate them from their identities as the males’ property.

In Greek life the male body was the norm. The female was seen as the “other”. They were excluded from society for a long while but were accepted after the polis liberalized a little bit.Once this happened they were allowed to take off their peplos and become an equal; if not literally, then just in the form of a sculpture. Even that was a large step in this male oriented society. Polykleitos and Praxitelese defined the proportions and the standard of beauty for the male and female respectively.

The Greeks were the only ancient civilization that celebrated the true beauty of man as an image of god and therefore depicted him in the nude. Women would also be accepted and appreciated but, like all good things, it took time.

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