Dr. Ian Jenkins on Defining Beauty

On 22nd April 2015 we were treated to a feast of eloquence and erudition by Dr. Ian Jenkins, Senior Curator at the British Museum, who is currently overseeing the magnificent exhibition ‘Defining Beauty’. With the aid of slides, Dr. Jenkins described the dazzling skill with which the Ancient Greeks sculpted the human body, considering the depiction of the nude male body to be the ideal of beauty and the height of artistic endeavour.

The lecture traced the development of Greek statuary from the symmetrical, stylised standing kouroi (nude youths), of the 6th century into the full flowering of the Classic Greek style in the 5th and 4th centuries through such sculptors as Polykleitos, Pheidias and Praxiteles who are among the greatest sculptors of all time. Their genius, said Dr. Jenkins, lay in their astonishing ability ‘to convert cold marble into human flesh’ as they abandoned symmetry to invest their sculptures with facial expressions and with actions expressed through contrasted tension and relaxation on different sides of the body (‘the balance of opposites’ as he termed this) through contraposto movement – as in the case of the famous Discobolos (‘Discus Thrower’) of Myron and numerous other examples.

Dr. Jenkins embellished his talk with numerous slides demonstrating the progression of an art form of staggering beauty, and his talk was enlightened by some amusing stories about some of the subjects of the sculptures as well as by a brief but informative discourse on the development of Greek pottery.

Dr. Jenkins’s talk was followed by an eloquent and persuasive talk by Anna Donnelly, an English adviser with Solihull School in Birmingham who, with the aid of a grant from Classics for All, had introduced the teaching of Latin into her classes with remarkable results in the improvement of literacy, the use of English and an interest in classical history. Her talk included examples of her pupils’ feedback on the inspiration they were deriving from the study of the classical world – a fitting end to a hugely informative and uplifting evening.

By Richard Barber OBE