Just as Ancient Greek art held up an impossibly ideal image of beauty, so we in the modern world grapple with the idealised images of advertising and the moviesby Mary Beard / February 21, 2018 / Leave a comment
In Villahermosa in southern Mexico—in an archaeological park that is disconcertingly paired with a zoo—stands a colossal severed head. It is a couple of metres high and made from basalt, one of seventeen or so such heads produced some 3,000 years ago by the earliest known civilisation in central America. We now call this civilisation “the Olmec,” but the name dates from the Aztec period, a millennium or more later. What they called themselves we have no clue.
What the heads were—what they were for—is just as much of a mystery. What do they represent: human beings or gods? Are they portraits, or something else? We know that the stone used to make them came from miles away from where the heads were first displayed, and furthermore that they were created using nothing more than stone tools. Who invested such vast resources—and what was their motive? What was on show here, and why? And what did the people who first saw the heads make of them? The Olmec, whoever they were, aren’t much help: no written record survives.
These questions are fascinating because the Olmec heads are so different to what we in the modern west often regard as “beautiful” or “naturalistic.” They prod at our certainties, reminding us how narrow and restrictive that vision is. When it comes to images of the human form, from fashion designs to films to advertising and pornography, we are heirs to one particular version of the body that was invented around the turn of the 6th and 5th centuries BC.
It was at that point that the stiff, plank-like sculptures of the so-called archaic period of Greece gave way to the lithe, subtle, mobile images of the body with which we have become familiar. We see these figures on the frieze of the Parthenon, and in the famous bronze of Poseidon apparently throwing his trident into the waters, now in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. (The change happened a little earlier in the paintings on Greek ceramics.)t
What drove this shift is one of the great puzzles of art history. Some have fantasised that the rise of democracy, and the new respect for the individual supposed to go with it, was responsible—a nice thought, although sadly the theory doesn’t really fit. (Athenian democracy…