THE human body occupies a key place in Greek art and sculpture. In the earliest Greek works many beasts and monsters were depicted, but the range soon narrows to a few domestic animals such as dogs and horses; a trend reflecting the central place of man in Greek thought religion and culture.
The Greeks believed profoundly in the value of the ideal man. This conviction underlies Aristotle's statement that the city-state is the ideal political institution. For Plato "Man participates in the divine" and is "related to the gods". The great lyric poet Pindar wrote that "Gods and men have a single mother, only our strengths are different". At the dawn of Greek civilization Homer sang of a world where the gods not only mingled with men and behaved like them. The main difference between man and the gods were immortal.
The gods are thus almost always represented in human form. The human body is a constantly recurring motif in Greek art. Soaring temple columns with their finely-chiseled lines recall the slender bodies of Greek youths, and the name for the capital of a column (kionokranon) means head. In paintings and sculptured reliefs the beauty of the human form in relaxation or in action stands out against a neutral background. Only later, during the Hellenistic period, do we find some rather clumsy attempts to represent man in a natural setting.
This human idealism explains why their sculpture could render the beauty of the human body more successfully than previous art forms. In Plato's Republic, when the philosopher Glaucon refers to Socrates' description of the magistrates in his ideal city, he utters this revealing phrase: "My dear Socrates, you have made your magistrates too beautiful, just as if you were a sculptor."
Only by representing the gods and their heroes in a purely human form could the ancient Greeks understand their gods and communicate with them, almost as equals.
In around the middle of the seventh century BC, sculptors first dared to carve stone statues that were life-size or larger. They initially restricted themselves to a small number of human types, always viewed from the front. These types were a young man, naked and standing upright, his arms held close to his sides and his left leg slightly forward; a young woman who is always depicted clothed, her feet together; and the male or female figure seated in a hieratic posture. All of these types have points in common with Egyptian statues of gods and pharaohs, but there are some notable differences. The young males unlike his Egyptian prototypes, is never portrayed wearing a garment around his waist or leaning against a Pillar, and his legs are not attached by a support. The figure is usually naked, like the Greek athlete on which it is modeled. It seems to be on the verge of movement or action, unlike Egyptian figures which seem fixed for all eternity. By contrast the Greek statues have expressions of great vitality. They seem to be joyful and full of life.
How did Greek sculptors succeed in rendering this ideal, these figures in the full bloom of youth? Above all through the science of proportions which, until the beginning of the Middle Ages, was considered to be the key to beauty. The use of proportions in Greek sculpture started even before Pythagoras . (about 550 BC). A detailed description of its principles was given in the fifth century BC by the sculptor Polyclitus in a treatise on his statue the "Doryphorus" (Spearbearer) which was known as the "Canon" because it embodied the ideal proportions of the male form. Although what he says is not always clear, Polyclitus created a system of fixed ratios between the different parts of the body which was taken as a model for several centuries.
The aim of Greek sculptors was not to recreate the appearance of nature, but to bring to the surface the very essence of the model and above all to render it dynamically, so that it seems to live. It might be said that the Greek sculptor worked from the inside out. He brought to light the masses of the body as though he himself were creating life, rendering in every detail the harmony of forms. Even during the most naturalistic periods sculptors never attempted to produce photographic likenesses, as in academic art, or cold reflections of abstract forms, as in neoclassicism. Their works vibrate with life which is tempered only by a
profound sense of balance and moderation.
Plato believed that beauty lies not in the deceptive and illusory appearance that gives pleasure to the eye but in a higher reality, which he called the Idea. He approved only of geometrical forms, pure volumes, and mathematical proportions. He seems to have accepted only works of very ancient Greek and Egyptian art, which he valued for their purity of form and their immutability.
Closer to reality and to the Greek tradition, Aristotle in the fourth century BC found beauty in ideal proportions, symmetry and order. Art for him was merely an imitation of nature; the instinct for imitation being inherent in man. Faithful to the naturalistic ideas of his time, Aristotle remarked that a work of art is a source of pleasure when we recognize in it a familiar object, even if the object is not beautiful in reality. In this he prefigured the modern notion that there is a distinction between artistic beauty and physical beauty.
What then did the Greeks understand by artistic beauty? Was it the mathematical rules and relations of number which for centuries imposed simple, clear and symmetrical forms and harmonious proportions, as demanded by Polyclitus, the most normative of sculptors, and Plato, the most brilliant of philosophers? Or the power of life, the force which brings life to the smallest surface, the tiniest detail of a Greek sculpture and makes it a joy to see and touch?
Gradually realism triumphed in Greek art; However, even at the end of its long development, the art of ancient Greece, in spite of its capacity for penetrating the secrets of the human soul and its plastic virtuosity, never went so far as to create a gallery of portraits, a chronicle peopled with figures, as the Romans did. Until the end Greek art was illuminated, however dimly, by the tender and beautiful light which emanated from the Greek idea of the perfect man.