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By Harry Mount for the Daily Mail. Perhaps the most famous Greek sculpture of all, Discobolos, the discus-thrower, shows how athletes competed in the nude. About two-and-a-half thousand years ago, a cultural miracle took place in ancient Greece. Democracy was born in Athens, the first great tragedies and comedies were written — and statues were carved that were more astonishingly lifelike than ever before.
Warriors die on the Trojan battlefield in the buff. Athletes hurl the discus in the altogether. Goddesses step into the bath without a stitch on. Nowadays, we take Greek nakedness for granted.
But when those statues were first carved, the Athenians were breaking an extreme taboo. Yes, there had been naked figures in the art of earlier civilisations. You can see them in a BC panel from Nimrud in ancient Assyria, now in modern Iraq — one of the ancient cities tragically bulldozed by Islamic State militants earlier this month.
But in the Nimrud panel — which is also at the British Museum — it is dead enemies of the Assyrians who are impaled, naked, on stakes. Other naked men have their he chopped off. The victorious Assyrians, however, are all clothed. For there was a vital difference in civilisations that existed before the Greeks. For them, nakedness was a of weakness; a of losing the battle, of your body being humiliated.
The Greeks were the first to see nakedness as, literally, a heroic state. A BC Athenian vase shows four athletes — a long-jumper, two javelin-throwers and a discus-thrower, all of them naked. Indeed, perhaps the most famous Greek sculpture of all, also in the show, is the Discobolos — the discus-thrower.
He is a study in composed balance, with the discus in one outstretched hand, the other bent in counterbalance down towards his knee. He is also completely naked. All the athletes covered themselves not with garments but olive oil mixed with dust; an early sort of suntan lotion to protect themselves from the blazing Mediterreanean sun in their outdoor gyms. A BC bronze statue shows a young athlete wiping off the oil with a strigil, or scraper.
Enter the first moisturiser. The Greeks weren't shy of painting slave women naked, but free women were a different matter. Despite this, by the fourth-century BC, goddesses such as Aphrodite pictured left and right were regularly shown nude. Nude young Athenian men ran from a gymnasium on the edge of the city all the way to the Parthenon.
The fatter and slower men were slapped by the watching crowd as they stumbled past. Whatever the origin of the naked fashion, passions ran high in the gyms, where older men often lusted after the athletic bodies of younger men in an age when homosexual sex was common. One appears in the British Museum show. At symposia, citizens downed gallons of wine, before dancing and having sex with prostitutes and young boys.
By the fourth century BC, Aphrodite — the Greek goddess of love — was regularly sculpted naked. She was often shown half-hiding her modesty in a seductive way. One terrific example at the British Museum shows Aphrodite making a lazy attempt to cover her breasts and her crotch. In fact, you get a good view of pretty much all her charms. If you look at her from the back, her hand slyly beckons towards the viewer in a come-hither gesture. Who owns this pulse-racing chunk of sensuous marble? No less an upstanding figure than Her Majesty the Queen. Another BC statue of Aphrodite shows her about to step into the bath, balanced on one foot.
Absolutely everything is on cheerful, open show. The Elgin Marbles — the most famous Greek statues on earth, taken from the Parthenon by Lord Elgin years ago — include two goddesses: Aphrodite and Dione. The Elgin Marbles mark a unique point in artistic — and human — history. Where statues of a century before were stiff and clunky, something magical clicked in 5th BC Athens.
The sculpted bodies slipped into natural, relaxed postures; hard marble was fashioned so exquisitely it might have been soft skin. While Greeks considered being nude as a heroic state, to be aroused was seen as shameful, hence why all Greek heroes are shown with such small genitals right.
An Athenian vase from BC depicts him wrestling with the god Apollo. An exception was made for satyrs — drunken, sex-mad beasts, with tails and goat-like features. These monsters, celebrated for their lack of self-control, are shown in a state of excitement. A BC Athenian wine-cooler shows a satyr balancing a drinking cup on his impressive manhood. On another Athenian cup, a satyr becomes bestial with an alarmed deer.
Comic actors, too, were meant to be entertainingly sexual; they were often kitted out with a big, floppy, fake phallus. A BC wine-bowl in the exhibition shows a well-endowed comedian doing a sort of clown routine on top of a ladder, while two gossipy women look on appreciatively. The Romans were initially shocked at Greek nudity. But soon, as in so many other things — such as architecture, tragedy and comedy — they copied their ancient ancestors and took up the nudity craze. Like so much in this unmissable show, Hermaphroditos is an exceptional combination of artistic genius and wild sexual freedom.
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