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Loading the Canon #13 by Helena-Anne Hittel

I Was a Greek Goddess

You’ve noticed it. It’s impossible to ignore. The magazines, the TV commercials-it’s everywhere. Skinny women and guys with rippling pectorals. We’re made to believe that this is what we should aspire to be. THIS is what you want.

Well, not way back when, it wasn’t.

Okay, so I may have lied to you a bit. The aggressively athletic male torso has been “the thing” since BC. The Egyptians were notorious for this in their art, which has been almost entirely consistent for millennia

pharoah

(excepting that crazy period when then-pharaoh Akhenaton moved everything to Tel-el-Amarna and introduced the principal of Ma’at, or truth, into the way he’s represented for posterity). The pharaoh, after all, was an all-powerful figure in Egypt. He was almost a god. The thought, then, was that he ought to be carved into stone or painted on walls as muscular and powerful. The women, by contrast, were made soft and curvy.

Egyptian Sculpture

Today’s Victoria’s Secret Angels would have sincerely worried them.

VS Wings

How was she ever going to survive childbirth?

The Greeks latched on to these ideas soon after. The athletic male developed in kouroi (free-standing nude male statues) from the Archaic period to Hellenistic. Fast-forward to Polykleitos in the High Classical period, and his über-famous Doryphoros (“spear-bearer”).

Doryphoros

Myron’s Diskobolos (“disc-thrower”),

Diskobolos

and Lysippos’ Apoxyomenos (“the scraper,”),

Apoxyomenos

all of those represented-even the gods-were idealized. Spear-bearer, in fact, was so loved, the Romans coped him and all of his friends into marble. They’re the only extant copies we have of this statuary, as most Greek originals were bronze (these were melted down for weapons later). We stumble upon our Spear-bearer later on in a palaestrum (a gymnasium, essentially. No more complicated words, I promise) in Pompeii. It’s like pictures of bodybuilders at Gold’s Gym. This was not only decoration, but an aspirational tool.

Women, however, are a bit more complicated.

The ancient female ideal, as mentioned earlier, was curvy. Large hips and rounded shapes meant that you could have all the babies you wanted and live to tell the tale. Evidence: the Aphrodite of Knidos.

Aphrodite of Knidos

There are no flattened abs or muscled legs, no dramatic cinches in the waist, and no “thigh gap” (talkin’ to you, “thinspiration” people). Here was a goddess personified and almost human, preparing for a bath.

Peter Paul Rubens’ women were another story. This was voluptuous on a whole other level. His Three Graces

Rubens_Peter_Paul-The_Three_Graces

and the portrait of his second wife, Hélène Fourment,

Helena Fourment in a fur wrap

are good examples of this. He did not idealize the women in his art because he saw no need to. This is where we get the term “Rubenesque.”

Then came the rise in popularity of the corset. This changes EVERYTHING for the female in art from 16th century Europe. Waists were cinched to within an inch of their lives, compressing bones and organs and making breathing difficult (medical diagrams of this fashion fad are scary).

The Harmful Effects of the Corset, illustration from 'La Vie Normale et la Sante' by Dr Jules Rengade (b.1841) c.1880 (colour litho)

Every woman of status wore a corset.

In the late 19th century, pen-and-ink illustrator Charles Dana Gibson created what came to be known as his “Gibson Girls,” combining the voluptuous woman with the fragile one. One’s curves, bust line and hips and the other’s slender lines and respectability bore the illustrations that created a standard image of the American girl.

Gibson_Girls_seaside

The point, then, is this. Fashions change. Ideals change. This is just an extremely cursory glance at beauty standards in the Western tradition, and already we see the male shape bulking up and the female shape slimming down as the years progress. There’s a huge constancy, one could argue, in the male ideal, but a fluctuation on the feminine side of things.

What was important to a man-that he appear powerful, athletic, capable and strong still seems to stick today. The child-supporting curves that made up what was important in a woman, however, did not. This is not your friendly, neighborhood art historian telling you that you are ugly because you don’t look like today’s superstickskinny tan girls and aggressively muscled men. This is merely an examination of how we must have gotten to these “ideals”. I’ve now put this word into quotations. Why? Because what one person considers art isn’t going to be the same as another’s preferences.!

ART IS SUBJECTIVE. It is human expression and a living timeline. “Here today, gone tomorrow” has never been a truer way to describe it.

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Helena-Anne Hittel (Episode 35, essay) is an Art History Major at the University of Central Florida and Intern at the UCF Art Gallery.

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