The Greeks lived in a time of freedom, rarely experienced in the history of any nation, even our own. Censorship was practically non-existent. The concept of the supremacy of the individual over the state was born on the island of Crete. These ideas spread to mainland Greece. Art, politics, literature, everything was to the glorification of human beings. Naturally, the human body, exposed during athletic contests, was fascinating for artists. It was also a challenge.
The ability to properly imitate the structure, muscularity and natural movements of the human body in three-dimensional sculpture began to develop in the early Archaic period, 650-580 B.C. “Substantive stone sculpture, that is statues and reliefs approximately life-size and over, were not produced in Greece before about the middle of the seventh century B.C.(Richter 47).”
The Greeks were influenced by the Egyptians in art, as they were in religion and other aspects of their daily lives. To show motion, in Egyptian sculpture, one foot is placed in front of the other. The body is stiff, and the mouth is often in the shape of a peculiar grin known as the “archaic smile.” Statues were carved out of white marble. Susan Woodford in Greece and Rome tells us that the Greeks copied the Egyptian methods of stone carving that had existed many centuries earlier by:
draw[ing] the outlines of the figure they wanted on three (or four) faces of a stone block – front view on the front, profile on the sides. Then they would chip away inwards gradually from the front and the sides, removing more and more stone until they reached the depth that corresponded to the figure that had been drawn. The drawings had to be made according to a fixed scheme of proportions so that when the work was finished the front and side views would merge with one another.
There was a great emphasis on symmetry. Balance was achieved around a perfectly vertical axis, there were not twists or turns in the body that would destroy the symmetry.
The early classical period began to emerge about 480-560 B.C. The Greeks reached a level of recreating the human body in life-size sculpture that had never been developed before. “A turn was given to the upper part of the body, often in an opposite direction from that of the pelvis, whereby a sense of movement and easy balance was imparted (Richter 85).” An outstanding artist of this period was Myron, an “Athenian sculptor of the mid-5th century B.C. [His sculptures] were known for their truth to nature (Osborne 760).”
The Hellenistic period began to emerge about 330-100 B.C. After the Greeks succeeded in creating sculptures that were such representatives of perfection that they took on a god-like quality in the classical period, they continued to strive for a greater realism. According to Osborne, “To represent the variety of planes in the human body, its movement in character and emotion” was the goal of the Hellenistic artists. The subjects began to change from human perfection to human realism, portraying ugliness, old age, and deformities. Finally, in the Hellenistic period, we begin to see female nudes, which were somewhat rare in Classical and Archaic periods.
It is important to remember when we see surviving sculptures in museums today and note their life-like qualities, that the paint has worn off of many of them. Many sculptures added realistic blush to the cheeks and color to the eyes. In short, the striving of the Greeks for excellence in all things human, led to their remarkable development and perfection of the human body in sculpture, the likes of which had never been seen before.
Osborne, Harold, Ed. The Oxford Companion to Art. Great Britain: Oxford at he Clarendon Press, 1970.
Richter, Gisela M.A. A Handbook of Greek Art. Great Britain: The University Press of Aberdeen, 1959.
Woodford, Susan. Greece and Rome. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982.