Dr. Heather Sebo
By Richard Birmingham
Dr Heather Sebo’s absorbing October 13 lecture ‘More Real than Real’ provided two hours of valuable insight by showing us how the sculptured human form came to prominence in ancient Greece and how, in a very short time, artists were able to transform the figure into a powerful vehicle to express aesthetic and cultural ideals. Trade relations likely enabled the Greeks to learn their early sculpting methods from Egypt. Egyptian sculpture was stylised and lacking in transformative expression. Greek carving as seen in the Kouros figures however liberated the human body from the marble block to fully occupy all 3 dimensions. A cult of nudity flourished in Athens in the hot dry climate around 500 BC, the time of democracy. The nude male body, exercising and competing, could be scrutinised as never before. In an astonishing progression Greek sculptors took only 90 years to work out how to carve the Kouros figures, in contraposto, and a further 100 to refine the technique into an idealised anatomical naturalism. The Colossal Sounion Kuros shows a strong Egyptian influence whereas the Kritios Boy by 480BC has arrived at an idealized perfection.
One hundered years after the Parthenon was built we see the first depiction of the female in “The Godess of Love” by Praxiteles.
But why the complete absence of the female form in Greek Sculpture up until this time? Well it seems Women’s power made the Greeks a little nervous. Aphrodite was born of the sea and you can’t control the sea, too fluid and to unpredictable. Heather’s analogy showed the Greeks believed women were like vessels, better to be sealed with a pregnancy. Curious then we see no representation of nursing mothers in Greek art. Titian however was not so shy. By the time of the Renaissance Aphrodite had been given quite a makeover. His Venus of Urbino is devoid of any classical modesty.
He has moved her indoors, engaged her with the viewer and made her sensuality explicit. Here the body becomes the site of pleasure and the nude becomes naked.
In Grunewald’s ‘Crucifixion’, on the other hand, the body becomes the locus of ultimate pain and suffering.
Naked or nude, erotic or angst ridden, the body is the only medium through which we can experience the world and our fragile place in it.
It’s no wonder then that the body, the figure, has become such an endless source of inspiration to artists over so many centuries.
Dr. Heather Sebo’s lecture demonstrated these cultural legacies, their origins in ancient Greece and their influence our artistic endeavours today.