Ancient Greek art depicting the male body doesn't merely display an advanced knowledge of anatomy and artistic technique; it conveys the prevailing attitudes about masculine beauty. Male figures were often depicted in the nude to display the musculature and grace of the male form, highlighting the central role the masculine body occupied in Greek culture and aesthetics.
The Egyptian Posture
After observing Egyptian art, Greek artists began to integrate Egyptian techniques into their depiction of the male body around 650 B.C. Notably, they began to show young men, or "kouros," with one leg forward and straight arms clenched in fists. Although these early figures lacked the detailed musculature that characterized later Greek statues, the kouros statues nevertheless highlighted the Greek fascination with the male form. Unlike the Egyptian statues, which were clothed, the Greeks depicted the kouros as smiling, nude figures that stood upright and proud, evoking the sense of pride Greek men felt in their bodies.
Exercise as Masculinity
As the birth place of the Olympic games, ancient Greece was notable for the cultural capital placed on athleticism. Athletes would typically exercise in gymnasiums, where they would socialize and practice sports in the nude. Men saw their time in the gymnasium as an opportunity to prepare for war and to train younger men, and exhibited no shyness in either activity. Men were encouraged to exercise regularly to maintain the manly beauty of their bodies, as any sign of weakness or flabbiness was seen as effeminate and undesirable.
Bodies in Motion
Greek artists often represented the fine musculature of athletes in statues that displayed taut muscles working together, whether the athlete was running or throwing a discus. Yet statues of Greek athletes capture not only the strength and poise of the athletes, but also the struggle and pain of defeat. Around 100 B.C, for example, artists depicted boxers as suffering from cauliflower ears or as having larger thighs than average, indicating a sense of realism alongside the masculine ideal.
Homoeroticism in Art
Depictions of the nude male form were often explicitly or implicitly homoerotic. Though they typically rendered male genitals in miniature, artists nevertheless depicted the young male body as an erotic form. In some paintings, groups of men would massage each other; in others, they would simply embrace as lovers. Even scenes that depicted athleticism could carry erotic subtext. Men would often give their young lovers rabbits out of admiration, so a painting of a young runner with a rabbit was designed to indicate the runner's physical beauty and the artist's reaction to that beauty.
- University of Chicago: The Perfect Body
- Stanford Humanities Review: The Athlete's Body in Ancient Greece
- JSTOR: The Male Figure in Egyptian and Greek Sculpture of the Seventh and Sixth Centuries B.C..
- Metropolitan Museum of Art: Marble Statue of a Kouros (Youth)
- Metropolitan Museum of Art: Panathenaic Amphora
- Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images