Visual Arts

Last chance to see the naked Greek dudes! (Bendigo,Victoria)

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A philosopher, a discus thrower and an erotic couple enter a room. Yes, it’s the British Museum at the Bendigo Gallery, two hours outside Melbourne. Last days! Do yourself a favour!
You haven’t been to Bendigo to see the nude dudes and marble ladies that ends next week ? Ouch, your loss.
But wait! You still have ten days, or two weekends to catch this superlative display of heartbreakingly beautiful sculptures. From tiny finger sizes to a monumental discus thrower, who gets a room to himself. It’s a big show, elegantly and expansively designed — I had two hours and could have used the same again.
The shock of the old
This is the most captivating, thrilling show I’ve seen this year. And it’s partly how it makes sense of that tricky word “timeless”. We may well be running out of time now, climate changers that we are, but to meet these faces and figures, wrought with such ingenuity and virtuosity, from across the centuries — when our year is so crammed with rubbish news and data — is to confront the shock of the old.
What we have is unimaginably more science and technology, and even more blood under the bridge. But we are still like these silent figures, with only a toga between us and the cold fury of eternity.
A woman from WA came up to chat as I was drawing these two very small and entirely fabulous terracotta figures, which I deeply coveted. I asked if it was worthwhile coming all this way. She said, “I’m so happy! It’s so beautiful!”

Among my favourites out of 100 plus items. The gallery allows photography, very civilised (and I bought the catalogue anyway).
Left: Terracotta figure of a woman, Greek c.300-200BC. Paraphrasing the excellent captions: Well-to-do women spent their lives indoors except for festivals and funerals. But look at the sway and swagger! Right: Terracotta dancer, 2nd century BC.

A superb bronze helmet (Greek c.510BC), standard wear for “hoplites” — close quarter fighting gear. The shaping and detailing are so fine; now imagine — the heat and sweat, the clank and crash of metal, muffled shouting, the slash of blade through flesh, the fields of blood strewn with bodies in bronze.

Drawing distills what you see into line. Makes you analyse shape and structure in the way that only the hand can lead the eye.

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“Strangford Apollo” 490BC. A broken nose, yet still undeniably noble.
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Kylix: red figured drinking cup, Athens c.510-500BC. Boy chasing hare. Utterly delightful.

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Marble sphinx, probably a support for a table (!), Roman c.120-140AD.

Marble gravestone of an unmarried girl with fashionable ‘melon’ hairstyle, c.330-317BC; erotic kylix c.480BC; Bronze dancing figure, c.1st-3rd century BC (tiny at 12cm high).

Diskobolus, Roman 2nd century AD after lost Greek original c.450-440BC, from the villa of the emperor Hadrian. (169cm high)
Finally, a sentimental  fave  — turning the corner I came upon the statuette of Sokrates c.200BC-100AD, and my heart leapt. I saw this many years ago in the British Museum where it lives (bought a replica which I still display). Its crystaline marble glints in the spotlight — the sculptor has resisted prettifying Sokrates’ pug-face.
Famously ugly, he stands like a small (only 27.5cm high) concentrated rebuke to the unbridled beauty of perfect youth surrounding him: ‘The unexamined life is not worth living.’ Certainly po-faced if not pug-faced: the possession of mere beauty not being sufficient to ‘live a life that allows them to experience being fully human.’
But I guess even if one is lucky enough to be gifted you are not expected to grasp it all at once: beauty, talent, insight, courage, hemlock…

Go on, hop in the car, have an outing. Have lunch in Kyneton (the ice cream desserts at Mr Carsisi, divine!). Sorbet and frozen yoghurt from Flavours as you walk around Lake Weerona. Drive, make like a John Brack painting!
Do yourself a favour.

[box]The Body Beautiful in Ancient Greece is at Bendigo Art Gallery until November 9.[/box]

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