Normally, when I go to the British Museum it’s out of a sense of duty, rather than the fact I want to go. I feel like I should go and should enjoy it. Sure, I check out the Rosetta Stone, wander through the Greek and Roman sections but mostly I just don’t get why I should enjoy looking at statues with bits missing. But a couple of weeks ago it was different. I went to the British museum and I actually wanted to go. Particularly, I wanted to see the Greek statues with bits missing.
Why? I have been looking at nineteenth and twentieth century masculinity. A bit of a jump I realize, but actually, the Greek statues were really important in creating modern ideals of manliness. In the 1750s Johann Joachim Wincklemann went to Rome and began to study Greek statues. He published several works on the history of art, but what is most lasting in public imagination was his concentration on the statues of Greek men. He paid close attention to the male figures and commented that they were ‘lithe, without any surplus fat, and no feature of the body or face disturbed their noble proportions … The ideal body projected both strength and restraint’. Over the course of the next century, this image of the lean, strong man became popular with the public and shifted public opinion on what made a perfect masculine form. The ‘Greek ideal’ became popular throughout Europe as the ultimate manly figure, with each country adapting it slightly to take on their own particular circumstances. In Britain, the Elgin Marbles contributed to the particularly British masculine ideal.
Nearly 200 years later and in the British Museum, it was therefore the Elgin Marbles that I particularly wanted to see. In fact, I took a large number of photos of some of the more complete statues and felt pleased that, although I wasn’t really engaging in my research I was in fact doing something related to it.
You can really see what Wincklemann was talking about – the lithe, lean and strong man. But more incredible to me is that 2500 years later these statues have defined for two centuries what we see as an ideal male body. Hopefully, you can also see the similarities between the Greek statues and our current concepts of what a good looking male looks like. Certainly, the notions of being a ‘man’ have changed since Wincklemann, but in terms of the body, the Greek statue still influences our idea of what is a perfect man.