Book Club

Icon

Publishers of award-winning illustrated books on art, history, archaeology, world cultures and more.

Defining Beauty at the Hay Festival

After a long hiatus, the British Museum Press blog is back!

Our summer got off to an exciting start when Ian Jenkins, curator of the Greece and Rome Galleries and the blockbuster Defining Beauty exhibition, was invited to speak at the Hay Festival at the end of May.

Founded in 1987, the Hay Festival is now an international phenomenon, with spin-off festivals bringing writers and readers together on five continents throughout the year. The original, held in Hay-on-Wye, prides itself on its community spirit and rightly so – we were welcomed at Hereford station by a local volunteer who ferries authors around the festival every year. He was happy to share all his stories about the area, the history of the festival and, of course the celebrities who’ve shared his car!

Festival-goers relaxing

Set against a backdrop of rolling green hills and blue skies, the festival site looked like an idyllic village fȇte – snowy white tents interspersed with flowering plants and trees, and all bedecked with 16 miles (!) of bunting. There were bookshops selling both new and secondhand books, and plenty of deckchairs to relax and read them in. There was food for the body as well as the mind – special mention goes to the red London bus selling oysters and cocktails!

Ian was introduced by history author Jerry Brotton, and took an enthusiastic audience of around 100 people on a verbal tour of the current Defining Beauty exhibition. They were amused to learn that the exhibition opens with a view of the Queen’s bottom – because Her Majesty owns the crouching Venus sculpture that beckons viewers into the gallery.

Ian takes the stage

He explained that the first room showcases the work of the three greatest Athenian sculptors – Myron’s iconic Discobolus (or ‘Discus Thrower’), which is a study of opposites; Praxiteles’ Doryphoros (‘Spear-bearer’), whose beauty comes from its perfect mathematical proportions, and finally, Pheidias’ river god Ilissos, made famous earlier in the year by his trip to Russia, but remarkable here for being the only Greek original, and the only one whose realism seems intuitive and effortless.

Next came the revelation that far from being the polished white figures that we are familiar with today, many Greek statues would originally have been brightly painted or even gilded, sometimes with metal accessories or weapons attached. Even the bronze statues could be embellished with copper lips and glass eyes, as with the amazing statue only recently recovered from the depths of the Croatian sea – named the Apoxyomenos, or ‘The Scraper’, after the fact that he is scraping the oil, dust and sweat from his skin after a long workout.

The exhibition compares and contrasts Greek art with that from other world cultures to show just how unique the Greeks’ perspective on nudity was. Scenes from the Parthenon Frieze, where the nude figures are the city’s noble warriors, are paired with an Assyrian relief, where the naked figures are defeated enemies being humiliated and killed. However, whilst nudity was a heroic signifier for a man, we see that it was altogether more problematic in the case of women, who were thought to be wild and uncontrolled. This aligned them with mythical groups such as centaurs, satyrs and Amazons – all represented in the exhibition, and all seen as ‘other’ – their representations symbolising the darker side of human nature.

The audience had plenty of questions, and many stayed to have their books signed by Ian. All in all it was a thoroughly enjoyable trip and I’d recommend the Festival to anyone – I’m looking forward to Hay 2016 already!

Category: Ancient History, Art, Art History, History

Tagged: , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply