Body Beautiful

‘Body Beautiful’: Sex and the Single Sculpture

The Greek Ideal at Portland Art Museum: Ah, it's perfect. And nervously sexy.

Nymph and satyr: just good clean fun? © The Trustees of The British Museum

Amid a lively tour of the marbles and vases in “The Body Beautiful in Ancient Greece,” the Portland Art Museum’s new blockbuster exhibition of antiquarian Greek and Roman art from the British Museum, Ian Jenkins stopped and exclaimed with pleasure over a tiny bronze figure tucked inconspicuously inside a vitrine.

“Big dumb-dumb Ajax!” Jenkins declared with glee. The sculpture, short and curved over itself into a kind of crude “C,” is notable for its obvious fully engorged penis. Not quite three inches tall and created sometime in the eighth century B.C, the crudely formed artwork had been tucked away for ages, Jenkins observed, as “that erotic piece.”

The bronze Ajax. © The Trustees of the British Museum

But it’s also much more: possibly the earliest surviving depiction of the great Greek mythic warrior, a brave and powerful if not overwhelmingly clever hero, who as a consequence of being shamed in competition with Odysseus goes mad and falls on his sword. The small piece shows Ajax bent over, thrusting his blade into his gut. It’s an act of atonement that brings the warrior back to full balance and honor, which the artist portrays as a literal, sexual reinvigoration – a return, in the throes of death, to the fullness of manhood. “It’s an expressionistic, it’s a primitive image,” Jenkins summed up. And in its quick clean urgent lines it also seems intensely modern.

Jenkins, the British Museum’s senior curator of Greek and Roman antiquities, knows this territory better than almost anyone. He was in Portland for the installation and opening of “The Body Beautiful,” and led a breezy, entertaining, and extraordinarily well-informed group tour of the exhibition a couple of days before it officially opened. Following and listening to him was like getting rare glimpses into the workings of a fertile, playful, rigorous, and fully engaged mind.

The anonymous Ajax is far from the most illustrious of the 130-odd works in “The Body Beautiful,” and a lot of visitors probably won’t notice it at all. But it’s easy to understand the pleasure that Jenkins takes in it, because it’s unlikely and unassuming, any yet it represents a key idea to understanding the ancient world this exhibition represents. The notion of sexuality, Jenkins believes, is central to ancient Greek culture, and it’s represented here in multiple ways. Aphrodite and her followers are on hand, and naked male athletes and heroes, and men and women coupling on the painted surfaces of vases and drinking cups, sometimes with onlookers gaping voyeuristically at them. In his wide-ranging, erudite, and sometimes wryly comic observations, Jenkins spoke of eros – “erotic love, as distinguished from agape, spiritual love” – and laced his conversation with allusions to Greek myths and dramas involving strong wild women whose deeds of revenge or retribution upset the order of things.

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