Mary Beard explores images of the human body in ancient art, from Mexico and Greece to Egypt and China.
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There are many places where you can come face-to-face
with the ancient world,
but I have to say, this is hard to beat.
This colossal stone head is almost 3,000 years old.
It was made by the Olmec,
the earliest civilisation in Central America.
It really is big.
His eyeballs are more than a foot across
and he weighs in at almost 20 tonnes.
Between his lips, you can just about glimpse his teeth.
And his irises are traced out on his eyes,
and he has a furled, slightly frumpy brow.
It's hard not to feel just a little bit moved
by this close encounter
with the image of a person from the distant past.
Since it was unearthed in 1939,
this head has been a real puzzle.
Who does it depict?
Why was it made?
And why just a head?
The Olmec left us very few clues.
But what they did give us is a powerful, in-your-face reminder
that, no matter where in the world, when civilisations first made art,
they made it about us.
I want to explore why that is.
What were those early people doing this for?
What part did images of the body play
in the societies which first created them?
I'm not just going to be concentrating on the artists -
I want to take a different approach.
I'll be trying to see these bodies through the eyes of the people
who lived with them, used them, and looked at them.
And that's not all.
I want to show how one particular way of representing the human body -
one that goes all the way back to ancient Greece -
became more influential than any other,
coming to shape our Western ways of seeing.
And returning in the end to the Olmec,
we'll see how the way we look can confuse and even distort
our understanding of civilisations beyond our own.
Can we ever look through the eyes of people in the distant past?
It's hard, but just occasionally we get the chance.
It was some 2,000 years ago
when the Roman Emperor Hadrian arrived in Thebes
with his entourage.
He'd come for a look-see around the fringes of his empire,
and to take in the wonders of ancient Egypt,
already thousands of years old.
Hadrian was by far the most committed traveller
of all the Roman emperors.
He seems to have got everywhere.
And on this occasion, he wanted to visit
perhaps the most famous heritage site in Egypt,
perhaps the greatest five-star tourist attraction
of the whole of the ancient world.
It wasn't the great pyramids he longed to see,
but these colossal statues.
Made around 1300 BC,
they were originally statues of the Egyptian pharaoh Amenhotep,
marking his tomb.
But over time, their meaning had changed.
And by Hadrian's day,
they were thought to depict a mythical African king, Memnon.
And what had made them such a draw
was that one of the statues could do things no other statues could.
If you were lucky and came early in the morning,
believe it or not, he could sing.
It was a bit like a lyre with a broken string.
And even in its prime,
it couldn't be relied upon to make a sound every day.
It was taken as a very good omen if it did.
What's amazing is that Hadrian's encounter is recorded
thanks to a piece of vandalism.
For ancient tourists, part of the fun was to have their reactions
carved onto the statue's leg.
In Hadrian's party, the vandal was a lady-in-waiting, Julia Balbilla,
who recorded her impressions in Greek verse.
I've waited half my life to be up here,
searching out Balbilla's poetry.
Here is one of the things she wrote,
and in some ways this is the beginning of her diary
of the Memnon experience,
because on this occasion she says that they got here really early
but didn't hear anything.
But there's another one.
It's got Julia Balbilla's name written at the top
and this is a bit more triumphalist
cos here she says her Lord Hadrian actually heard Memnon.
The truth is, it's not great poetry,
but the verses do give us that kind of first-hand glimpse
of what it felt like to be here.
And there's something touching about being able to
tread in the footsteps of Hadrian's party,
to share their gaze,
even if we can't actually hear the singing.
Nobody knows exactly how the sound was made or why it stopped
because the statue is completely silent now.
But one thing I think is clear -
the story of Memnon's statue is a great example
of how images of the human body operate in the world.
Not just as passive objects to be admired or wondered at,
but as players, as part of an interactive, two-way relationship.
Singing might be a rarity, but images often do something.
Even more, the story is a reminder that the history of art
isn't just the history of artists,
of the men and women who painted and sculpted -
it's also the history of the men and women like Julia Balbilla
who looked, who interpreted what they saw,
and of the changing ways in which they did so.
If we want to understand images of the body,
I think we've really got to put those viewers
back into the picture of art.
And one of the best places to do that is ancient Greece -
in particular, the city of Athens from around 700 BC.
Never much more than a small town in our terms,
it was a place where you could find people of different classes
and backgrounds cheek by jowl in a grand experiment in urban living.
And one of the most distinctive things about Athenian culture
was an intense focus on the youthful, athletic body.
This body was a symbol of political and moral virtue.
And Athens became a whole city of images devoted to the human form.
Greek art almost never means landscape.
It almost never means still life.
Greek art means statues and drawings,
paintings and models of human beings.
These images were everywhere.
They were out in the world playing their part.
Imagine the public plazas and the shady sanctuaries
full of people in stone as well as people in flesh and blood.
We begin to get the point of all this if we look at the art form
that contained more bodies than any other.
The red and black of Athenian ceramics.
These are some of the finest examples we have.
Made from around 600 BC,
they were produced in luscious colours
using an intricate process of multiple firings.
They were turned out in their millions.
And with almost every surface displaying pictures of people,
it was pottery that made the human image ubiquitous across Athens.
These are two of my very favourite Greek pots.
This is ordinary crockery,
it's everyday homeware,
the kind of thing you might have found on the kitchen shelf
in an Athenian house.
The larger of the two is a rich man's wine cooler
to be brought out at his drinking parties.
The smaller one is an ordinary water jug.
But the images on both are much more than just pleasing decorations.
These images are telling the Athenians how to be Athenians.
This one here is, in a sense, a template
for being an Athenian wife.
There she is.
She's sitting down, she's being handed her baby
by a servant girl
and, at her feet, she's got a wool basket.
That about sums up the answer to the question,
what were Athenian wives for?
They were for making babies and making wool.
This one is a bit different
because it's covered with mythical creatures called satyrs
who are half human and half animal,
and they're all over this getting absolutely plastered.
They're balancing goblets in very silly places
and this one here is having wine poured straight into his mouth
from an animal skin.
It's kind of the equivalent
of drinking whisky straight from the bottle.
Now, what was that doing on the drinking party table?
If this pot was telling Athenian women how to be women,
this one was raising more difficult questions
about where the boundary really lies
between the human and the animal,
about how much wine you have to consume
before you really do turn into a beast.
These aren't government health warnings in our sense,
but the images are one way in which the Athenians paraded
their idea of what civilisation was,
defining themselves against the barbarians beyond the city.
And it's a version of civilisation that's a long way
from the lofty ideas of Greek culture we're often pedalled.
It's deeply gendered and rigidly hierarchical,
and it explicitly derides all those
who have faces or bodies or habits that somehow don't fit -
from barbarous foreigners to the old and ugly,
the fat and the flabby.
But, like it or not,
what we are seeing here are visual images
constructing one idea of a civilised human being.
Of course, the human body can do many different things
and so can its images.
And the Athenians exploited that range,
creating other bodies for very different purposes.
This is one of the most gorgeous memorial statues
ever to have been found in ancient Greece.
Her name is Phrasikleia
and that means something like "aware of her own renown".
Phrasikleia was carved in marble around 550 BC,
and was only rediscovered in 1972.
She has a wonderfully patterned dress,
clothed for eternity in her finest.
And the traces of red pigment are a useful reminder
that most Greek sculpture was richly, even gaudily, painted.
And she wears that smile -
that sign of life so common in early Greek sculpture.
What I like about her so much is the way that she engages us as viewers.
She's looking straight ahead
and she's challenging us to look back at her.
She's got a flower in her hand -
it's not quite clear whether it's for her
or she's about to give it to us.
And in the inscription, she actually almost speaks to us.
It says that it is the tomb sculpture of Phrasikleia
and then, as if in her own voice, it says,
"And I shall always be called a maiden
"because I got that name from the gods, instead of marriage."
That is, she died before her wedding day.
But what's great about it is the encounter it sets up,
and it's the encounter that, if we try hard,
I think we can still enjoy.
Phrasikleia faces death in the most forthright way,
resolutely refusing to be forgotten.
But can an image of a person ever fix time,
or even, for a moment, deny it?
That's what these vivid faces from Roman Egypt appear to do.
Though 2,000 years have passed since these people died,
it feels like they're still with us.
They looks like the kind of portraits
that hang on gallery walls.
And that's where we often see them.
But these portraits actually belong on coffins.
Few have remained intact, but this is one of them.
It contains a man named Artemidorus,
and his extravagant sarcophagus portrays
a cosmopolitan way of death.
His mummy is a wonderful amalgam
of the traditions of Egypt, of Greece and of Rome.
On the casing, you can see typically Egyptian scenes -
there's a mummy being laid out on a couch,
and those strange animal-headed Egyptian gods.
His name is Greek.
"Artemidorus, farewell," it says.
His face is a quintessentially Roman portrait.
Of course, other cultures before had represented the human face,
but it was the Romans who made this kind of individual likeness
very much their own.
Modelled with light and shade,
flesh layered in paint and wax,
and a clever catch light in the eyes,
these were the means by which Roman painters captured
the infinite variety that we see in the human face.
When Romans thought about where the impulse to portraiture came from -
even the impulse to painting as a whole -
they had a very vivid story to tell
about a young woman who was the creative genius
behind the very first portrait.
Her lover was going away on a long journey
and before he went, she got a lamp
and she threw his shadow against a wall
and traced round it to create a silhouette.
She was trying not just to memorialise him,
but to keep his presence in her world.
I think there's something like that going on
with the face of Artemidorus.
Domestic ware and tear,
even children's scribbles on some coffins,
suggest that they weren't instantly confined to the grave.
For a while, they may have stood in the land of the living,
perhaps in the family home.
These portraits, then, are not just memorials -
they're attempts to keep the presence of the dead
among the living
and to blur the boundary between this world and the next.
Painted faces and sculpted bodies always played vital roles
in the lives of ancient people who lived with them and looked at them.
But how do we make sense of those ancient statues
that were not designed to be seen at all?
China, as we know it, was born around 200 BC,
united under its first emperor, Qin.
Just as the Romans would do in the West,
he standardised everything in his efforts to exert control.
Currency, weights and measures, taxes, roads and transport.
They were sweeping reforms
and he left his mark on all aspects of Chinese life.
But no Roman emperor would ever be buried on the same grand scale
as Qin, or with so many bodies.
-It was just a mile away from the mound to the east
that the Chinese made their historic discovery.
It was 1974 when farmers in Shaanxi province discovered
fragments of human forms buried in the earth.
Scenes of mass archaeology followed,
the finds assembled in an extraordinary display.
It lies beneath this vast hangar-like structure.
It would capture the world's attention
as the most surprising archaeological find
of the 20th century.
It was, of course, the Terracotta Army.
It's a menacing sight,
this grey, ghostly remnant of an army,
rows and rows of life-sized terracotta soldiers.
These figures represent the Imperial Guard of the Emperor Qin.
They were buried with him at his funeral
and stand guard over his tomb.
There were once more than 7,000 of them,
but only a fraction have been excavated,
and that alone gives an idea of the vast scale of this whole complex.
This is quite simply the biggest tableau of sculpture
made anywhere in the planet ever.
Millions come here to be wowed by the sight of the army.
But it's not just the scale that's impressive - it's the detail, too.
Up close, you can see the individual plates and rivets of their armour.
And their heads have been modelled so no two look alike.
The contours of their faces differ,
eyes and ears delicately worked.
And a range of styles and textures have been used for the hair.
But the individuality that we're at first so struck by
isn't quite as simple as it seems.
It's true that no two of these figures are quite alike
but the differences between them that the craftsmen have introduced
turn out to be rather formulaic.
There's not much more than a handful of different eyebrow types
or different moustache types, for example.
They're a very standardised, institutionalised version
As one archaeologist has nicely put it -
their faces are likenesses,
but they are likenesses of no-one.
They're not, in the terms of Western art history, true portraits.
Some have admired this ancient form of artistic mass production,
others feel it a perfect way of expressing a regimented army.
Whatever you feel about them,
they certainly raise all kinds of questions about what a likeness is.
But one thing is for sure -
in the scale and complexity of the tomb
and even, I think, in the artistic detail
that the Emperor, dead or alive, could command,
there's a strong assertion of imperial power.
And that's definitely the message of what happened
just a few years after the Emperor's death.
Because the famous Terracotta Army that we see
were discovered in pieces,
smashed and burnt by a rebel
against the dynasty of the first Emperor
who launched a direct attack on his tomb.
There's something in that keen desire to destroy them
that gives us our clearest sense of the power of these images.
It was one thing to destroy the images
of the Emperor's terracotta protectors,
and so to nullify his power beyond the grave...
..but power in the here and now called for
bodies of an entirely different order.
This is the figure of Ramesses II,
who ruled Egypt around 1200 BC.
He was the pharaoh who invested more in his image than any other.
And his figure is found all over Egypt.
But by far the most imposing and memorable
are these great colossal statues
that stand guard at his temple in Thebes.
The one thing you really get here is that size matters.
These vast monumental figures
with that nice hint that they'd be even bigger
if they bothered to stand up for you, simply dominate.
They take over your field of vision.
It's an assertion of the power of the Pharaoh
through his huge, superhuman enthroned body.
However fragile that power might have been in real life,
the modern world has comprehensively bought in
to the monumentality of the Egyptian ruler.
And it's impossible not to think that when people walked past here
3,500 years ago
that they, too, would have got what the message was intended to be.
This kind of bombastic, bare-chested display
fits the picture we have of autocrats today.
Impressive though such images are,
I'm sure some ancient Egyptians would have found them as vulgar
or as irritating as we might.
But beyond the gates of the temple there's another set of statues
whose power and purpose is harder to fathom.
Deep inside, we're dominated by yet more vast images of Ramesses
that can't be explained away as propaganda to the people.
Only those closest to the king were allowed
into this part of the temple.
So what was the point of these towering statues?
Some think they were aimed at powerful elites
to remind them who was boss.
Others think they were aimed at the all-seeing eye of the gods.
I've got a different viewer in mind.
And that's the pharaoh himself.
Those of us with no inkling of power on a grand scale often forget
how hard it must be to believe in oneself as monarch or autocrat.
The person who really needs to be convinced that he is pre-eminent
above the common herd
is that ordinary human being who is masquerading as omnipotent ruler.
That's why, as a basic rule of thumb,
we find more pictures of kings and queens in all their finery
in royal palaces than anywhere else in the world -
and here in Egypt, too.
Monumental images of pharaohs,
commissioned by pharaohs themselves in vast numbers,
played their part in convincing the pharaoh
of his own pharaonic power.
These sculptures help the name of Ramesses live on.
But the style of this statuary would have a different
and very extraordinary legacy.
Almost certainly inspiring the earliest statues
of the human form in Ancient Greece.
We are now on the Greek island of Naxos.
It's a place famed since ancient times for its marble.
With a coarse grain and grey-blue tint,
it was easy to quarry and easy to work.
From way back, it was shipped off to make
some of the earliest monumental Greek sculptures.
They were large, rigid and stylised figures like this.
And up in the hills of Naxos, there's a disused quarry
where you can find one of those giant figures
which never made it off the island.
I've read lots about this.
But I've never actually seen it.
What it is, is a vast marble statue,
half-finished, still in its quarry.
This half-man, half-mountain was hewn out perhaps as early as 700 BC.
As you can see, it was going to be
one of those massive, static early Greek sculptures.
Here are his feet.
And I'm now walking up past his legs.
This thing here, this must be his outstretched arm
and then right up here, we come to his head.
And by the looks of it,
he was going to have a beard, and they have already
roughed out the shape.
LAUGHS: Makes me think that some men can be very stubborn.
But this guy hasn't budged in 2,500 years.
Quite why he's still here is a mystery.
Something must have gone wrong but, whatever, this figure gives us
a great view of how the Greek sculptors went about their work.
They must have cut a trench out all the way round it
in order to get to it to work,
and you can see a rather neatly worked trench at the back.
For me, it's just a wonderful illustration
of the number of people
that must have been involved in making a statue like this.
And every one of these little pockmarks
has been made by somebody's tool,
with hundreds of men hacking away to get this statue like this.
I find it a bit sort of weirdly surreal.
But his feet make an extremely nice place to sit.
Forever lying here in repose,
he's a remnant of the style
that the Greeks were soon to leave behind.
Because shortly after he'd been abandoned,
Greek sculptors developed an astonishing new style
that was distinctly their own.
There is a fundamental
and universal paradox at the heart of the sculptors' art.
The lived human body,
its mobility, it's warmth,
its changing character, has to be fixed...
..suspended in the cold and lifeless mass that is stone.
It's always an artificial compromise.
But the beginnings of the fifth century BC
sees Greek sculpture spring almost to life.
The rigid figures of the past give way
to daring experiments in form...
..nuance and subtlety...
..movement and musculature.
In under 200 years, Greek sculptors seemed to have developed
the tricks and techniques to weave the illusion of a living human body.
So radical was the change
that it has been called the Greek Revolution.
The exact cause of this revolution
is one of the great mysteries of the history of art.
Some believe it was Greek democracy,
of its new respect for the individual that launched it.
Others, that Greek artists just got better.
In truth, we don't know.
But whatever the causes, over the next centuries,
it was to have some truly astonishing artistic consequences.
This is one of the places that the Greek Revolution leaves.
It's impossible not to see this as an amazing work of art.
Dating is hard, but my guess is that it was cast around 100 BC.
Here, the hallmarks of the Greek Revolution
are brought together and trained on the body
of a battered and bruised boxer.
Boxing was always an important part of the ancient athletic repertoire.
And you can tell that he once had a fit body,
but it's really suffered.
What is equally striking is the loving care
with which this wreck of a human being has been depicted.
He's got a broken nose and cauliflower ears,
flabby from where he has taken all those blows.
And, in fact, he is still bleeding from fresh wounds.
There, the blood is shown in copper
and the bruises on his cheeks are brought out
by the slightly different colour
of a slightly different bronze alloy.
It's almost as if the bronze
has become the man's skin.
What makes the boxer so impressive
isn't just the extraordinary technique.
It's the point the piece is making.
The artist has used the descriptive powers
of this version of realism to launch a devastating attack
on the body culture that obsessed the Ancient Greeks.
He introduces a very different type of character
from those early, youthful, well-toned athletes.
Not just in the wounds and the scars,
but in the emotional collapse.
In a world in which there was something of a cult
of youthful athletic prowess,
all those telling realistic details add up to a reminder
that the body beautiful was not so very far from the body brutalised.
This work of art is prodding
at the awkward underbelly of Greek culture.
It's the incisive brilliance of sculptures like The Boxer
that gives the impression that the Greek Revolution
was an unalloyed triumph of artistic achievement.
But there is another way of looking at the Greek Revolution,
and at its losses as well as its gains.
Remember Phrasikleia, who died unmarried?
She was made long before that revolutionary change.
What I love is her elegance and simplicity.
The way she reaches out, offering a gift, or meeting us eye-to-eye.
That directness is exactly what gets lost in the Greek Revolution.
Later sculptures may be more supple than Phrasikleia,
they may seem to move more adventurously,
but they don't engage us in the same way.
In fact, if you try to look them in the eye,
many of them coyly avoid your gaze.
And many of them, like The Boxer, seem lost in their own world.
It's almost as if the involved viewer
has become an admiring voyeur,
and we are one step on the way to sculpture becoming an art object.
Phrasikleia is determinedly resisting being an art object,
and one thing she is not is coy.
But the problems of the Greek Revolution don't stop here.
Just a few hundred years after Phrasikleia,
this is what female sculptures in the Greek world had become.
This sculpture exposes some of the dangers
in the pursuit of realism,
and that blurry and perilous boundary between artefact and flesh.
This notorious body belongs to the Greek goddess Aphrodite.
It is a Roman version of a ground-breaking
statue by the sculptor Praxiteles
in the fourth century BC.
In the ancient world, this was celebrated
as a milestone in classical art
because it was the first naked statue of a woman.
Today, it's difficult to see beyond
the ubiquity of images like this
and recapture just how daring and dangerous
it would have been for the ancient Greeks.
This sculpture broke through social conventions.
It wasn't just that up to this point
female statues had been clothed.
In some parts of the Greek world, real-life women -
at least among the upper-class - went around veiled.
But, in fact, it wasn't just the nakedness -
this Aphrodite broke the mould in a decidedly erotic way.
Just look at her hands.
Are they modestly trying to cover herself up?
Are they pointing us in the direction
of what we want to see most?
Or are they simply a tease?
Whatever the answer,
Praxiteles has established that edgy relationship
between a statue of a woman
and an assumed male viewer
that has never been lost
from the history of European art.
But that difficult boundary between statue and flesh
was understood by the Greeks themselves.
They told a tale that shows how they, too, knew of the perils
they faced in creating what they saw
as realistic images of the human body.
One night, it was said, a young man became so aroused by this statue,
he forced himself upon it, leaving a stain of lust on her thigh.
He later threw himself over a cliff to his death, in shame.
That story of the stain not only shows
how a female statue can drive a man mad,
but also how art can act as an alibi
for what was - let's face it - rape.
Don't forget - Aphrodite never consented.
But however troubling
the Greek Revolution was in its own time,
there's a deeper legacy that reaches the modern age.
One to which we are often blind.
Inherited by Ancient Rome, rekindled in the European Renaissance,
faith in the Greek version of realism persisted through time.
And as the reverence for the classical style grew,
it would be invested with even greater meaning.
Not just as a model for figurative art to aspire to,
but nothing less than a barometer of civilisation itself.
To understand the forces at work,
you have to follow in the footsteps of the classical bodies
that left their original habitat of Greece and Rome...
..and by the 18th century
had found themselves in distinctly foreign worlds,
adorning the mansions and palaces of Northern Europe.
Syon House was once the fashionable country house
of the first Duke and Duchess of Northumberland.
In the mid-1700s, they transformed the house
into a vivid and imagined expression of the classical world.
Here, we're in the company of ancient bodies -
both originals and imitations.
And it can seem an oppressive space
in which no other way
of representing the human form is permitted.
The climactic set piece of the house
is in a central hall
where two great masterpieces of ancient sculpture face off.
At one end, the Dying Gaul...
..a figure who is said to embody the ancient virtue
of nobility in defeat.
But in this room,
he is forever overshadowed by what stands opposite.
By far the most important sculpture in the entire house is this one.
It's a replica of a classical work
originally made perhaps around 300 BC.
In the 18th century, it would achieve
unparalleled fame as the greatest sculpture ever made.
He is known as the Apollo Belvedere.
The Apollo takes his name from the Belvedere Sculpture Court
in the Vatican, where, since the early 16th century,
he stood on display.
Lovely as he is, that is probably where he would have stayed,
one sculpture among many, had it not been for the international fame
given to him by one man - Johann Joachim Winckelmann.
"This was quite simply", he wrote,
"the most sublime statue of antiquity
"to have escaped destruction.
"An eternal spring time," he went on,
"clothes the alluring virility of his mature years
"with a pleasing youth
"and plays with soft tenderness upon the lofty structure of his limbs."
"How is it possible," he asked, "to describe it?"
Winckelmann had worked his way up as librarian
and right-hand man to some of the biggest art collectors of the day,
and, finally, he had become Director of Antiquities
at the Vatican itself,
and the author of some of the most important books on art history ever.
Winckelmann was a man who had enthused over
any number of Greco-Roman bodies,
but the Apollo Belvedere really tipped him over the edge.
But Winckelmann offered more than words of adoration.
He would devise a brand-new theory
that would leave an awkward and lasting legacy.
In the library at Syon is the book
in which Winckelmann first laid out his theories.
Originally published in 1764,
it was in these pages that the Apollo was elevated
above a mere artwork to stand
as the ultimate symbol of civilisation itself.
This is Winckelmann's most influential book,
History Of The Art Of The Ancient World,
and on the front page, there is, in fact,
a lovely drawing which includes the Apollo Belvedere.
And what he did that no-one had systematically done before
was to say that the best art
was made at the time of the best politics.
It was almost as if he was wanting to argue
that you could track the history,
the rise and fall of civilisation
through the rise and fall
of the representation of the human body.
Winckelmann's views would seduce
even our most esteemed art historians.
-This is the figure of the most admired
piece of sculpture in the world.
The Apollo surely embodies a higher state of civilisation.
For more than 200 years,
Greek sculpture was regarded
as a beacon of a superior Western civilisation.
The northern imagination takes shape in an image of fear and darkness.
The Hellenistic imagination
in an image of harmonised proportion and human reason.
But for me, Winckelmann's legacy goes even further.
The inheritance of Winckelmann
has been a distorting and sometimes divisive lens,
deeply affecting the way people in the West
have encountered and judged
the art of other very different civilisations.
I think Winckelmann
has caught us in a narrow way of seeing
that's difficult to perceive, much harder to escape.
But there is a place we can pin down the legacy of Winckelmann.
It is back where we started, with the art of the Olmec.
It was 1964,
and Mexico was investing in a new national identity
that asserted the glories of its ancient past,
and central to the project was art.
A new museum was purpose-built
to showcase the depth of Mexican history...
..and the treasures of its great civilisations
laid out for all to see.
Of vital importance
was the celebration of Mexico's earliest civilisation -
Along with this and other colossal heads
was an array of extraordinary Olmec bodies.
This gathering of stone figurines
was found exactly as you see them.
Whether religious symbolism or ancient vanity,
this clay figure clasps a mirror to its chest.
And what looks like a baby
was one of hundreds known from Olmec cemeteries.
But star of the show was a brand-new acquisition.
It was the statue known as The Olmec Wrestler.
Its display of anatomical detail
and Greek-style proportion
made it one of a kind in Olmec art.
Held as proof that the Olmec Civilisation
was every bit as sophisticated as any in the classical world,
he quickly became a poster boy.
Not just for the Olmec, but for all of ancient Mexico.
And it is with The Wrestler that we see the impact of Winckelmann
and his version of classical form on our Western way of seeing.
What appeals to us about him are those shades of Greco-Roman art
that seem to fit with our own expectations
of artistic achievement -
the expressive twist of the body,
the apparently naturalistic muscles
and strikingly realistic face.
There's even the name that he's been given
with its echo of classical Greek sport.
If this is the work of an outstanding Olmec sculptor,
it's one who, by chance, got later Western tastes spot-on.
But so perfectly does he measure up to Western ideals,
that some now believe that he is, in fact, a fake -
the work of someone who understood the all pervasive allure
of the classical style.
If true, it shows how Winckelmann's legacy
can cloud our appreciation of other cultures,
even taint our understanding of the past.
But, real or fake,
The Olmec Wrestler shows that ancient images of human figures
can tell us much about the past, and even more about ourselves.
When we admire The Olmec Wrestler,
we are also facing our own assumptions
about what makes a satisfying image of a human being.
But it does more than that.
Because it always shifts the focus onto us as viewers
and onto our own prejudices.
So in a way, The Wrestler is an acute reminder
of one fundamental truth of the art of the body -
that it's not just about how people in the past
chose to represent themselves or what they looked like.
It is also about how we look.
The Open University has produced a free poster
that explores the history of different civilisations
To order your free copy, please call...
Or go to the address on screen
and follow the links for The Open University.
In this episode of Civilisations, Professor Mary Beard explores images of the human body in ancient art, from Mexico and Greece to Egypt and China. Mary seeks answers to fundamental questions at the heart of ideas about civilisations. Why have human beings always made art about themselves? What were these images for? And in what ways do some ancient conventions of representing the body still affect us now? In raising these questions, Mary explores how the way we look can influence our ideas of what is civilised.
The colossal prehistoric Olmec heads in Mexico set the scene. In a culture with no written record, all we can do is puzzle about what these images were for, whom they represented, and why they were constructed. Mary Beard moves to other ancient cultures where more evidence has survived. She looks at images that are far more than art objects - images from Egyptian statues to the terracotta warriors of ancient China that actively participate in the social world, that teach men and women how to behave, that assert power and assuage loss. Mary explores what makes a 'realistic' image of the human form. She looks at the 'Greek Revolution', the extraordinary process in the sixth and fifth centuries BCE, which saw the sculpture of the human body dramatically change from a series of static formulaic images to what we now take as living naturalism. Mary shows that Greek ideas of the human form influence the way we look to this day.