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Desirability and domination: Greek sculpture and the modern male body

By Ben Stevens H P Stevens, on 29 June 2011

The portrayal of the modern female body is a perennial subject of academic and public debate, so it was refreshing to attend a lecture last Thursday where the male body was given similar critical attention.

Professor Maria Wyke, UCL Chair of Latin, gave a witty Lunch Hour Lecture at the British Museum entitled ‘Desirability and domination: Greek sculpture and the modern male body’ in which she managed to tease out the connections between classical sculpture, Italian film and the birth of bodybuilding.

She began by explaining how much of our understanding of classical sculpture has been shaped by 18th century German art historian Johan Joachim Winckelmann through his book, The History of the Art of Antiquity.

Watch Professor Wyke’s lecture at the British Museum (45 minutes)

He was particularly interested in four nudes at the Vatican, the Belvedere sculptures, which he saw as masterpieces. Two of them embody a traditional sense of active, powerful masculinity, while the Belvedere Antinous represents more of a sensual, tranquil body in self-absorption and the Belvedere Apollo is a complex mix of power and erotic beauty.

This final statue became Winckelmann’s ideal example of Greek sculpture and, according to Professor Wyke, provided a source of inspiration in the early days of bodybuilding. Tracing its beginnings from the end of the 19th century, she discussed how it had its roots in circus feats of strength.

A key early figure was Eugene Sandow, who appeared in loincloths or fig leaves against classical props in photographs and, at live performances, would adopt the poses of classical statues, announced by an MC.

Illustrating her comments with wonderful photographs and bill posters from the 1890s, she demonstrated how these bodybuilding displays emphasised perfection rather than strength – very much in the spirit of the Belvedere Apollo.

Greek statues were associated with beauty and proportion, so the classical allusions gave a moral legitimacy to displaying muscles for show rather than strength, – which, in turn, meant that audiences were justified in their voyeurism.

As bodybuilding became more established, ‘physical culture’ magazines began to emerge and, in an interesting development, one of the regular stars, Charles Atlas, soon became described as the “world’s most handsome man” rather than the strongest.

The period just after World War Two saw the parallel emergence of homoerotic magazines at a time when explicit gay desire was not allowed in the US. Again, antiquity was a respectable cover for this, but also allowed allusions to the more open expression of homosexuality in classical Greece.

Yet, during the same period, the classical body was given completely different symbolism in Italy through the immensely popular ‘pepla’ or sword-and-sandal films. They focused on strong men (Hercules or Sampson) usually played by American bodybuilders or even Italians using American pseudonyms.

Professor Wyke explained that there was a clear political dimension to these epics. Made during the postwar reconstruction of Italy by the US, the film usually featured communities oppressed by tyrants, before a hero – representing virility and the American way – appears and restores order.

In this way, she argued, the classical body became a mass cultural commodity, endowed with a new sense of dominance, that seemed to say “the US is coming to save you”.

The lecture prompted a lively Q&A session afterwards that touched on the Nazis’ problematic use of the classical body as a model for their fitness programme and also revealed that Professor Wyke had gone as far as attending a modern day bodybuilding competition as part of her research.

A clear indication that the lecture was a hit came as I was leaving and an older female audience member in front of me remarked to her friend: “That lecture’s reminded me that my favourite part of a man has always been the legs…”

Ben Stevens is Content Producer (Editor) in UCL Communications & Marketing.

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