History, Athleticism and Aspiration- 5th Century Greek Sculpture

Explain how the sculptures of the 5th Century BC aspire to be lifelike, historical, aspirational and athletic

The fifth century BC saw the transition from the Archaic era in sculpture, to the Classical period, including the High Classical period. This century saw some of the greatest works of sculpture and sculptors of the ancient world. It was also the century which the use of bronze in freestanding sculpture became very common. Nevertheless, the purpose for statues remains the same and although the composition and subject of sculptures varies indefinitely, the desire for perfection always remains.

The fifth century sculptors were among the best of the Ancient world such as Polykeitos, they were always striving to give their subjects a lifelike appearance. This is hard considering the sculptor is trying to bring an inanimate medium to life. The sculptors used the proportions of the statue to give it a lifelike semblance. This is seen in the Kritios boy, of the early 5th century, has the proportions of a young adult. These correct proportions help the viewer’s mind to perceive this statue as a young boy, rather than a statue of such a person. His proportions do not allow the imagination to flow and question the boy’s age, and therefore adds to the realism of the sculpture. This is also true of later 5th century sculpture such as the Diadoumenos of around 430BC. This man is in his youth and there is no confusion in this because the proportions of his body suggest someone who is in his prime. Another point is that the detail on the sculptures in this century also add to the realism of them, exemplified in the muscle rendering and the polychromy on the Riace Warriors. The muscle tone and the anatomic perfection on the sculptures, gives them a realistic feel because you can imagine two soldiers being exactly like this. This is compounded by the fact that the younger man had more toned muscle, while ht older warrior has slightly less defined muscles. This anatomical detail allows the mind to associate the statues with what they are in reality. There seems to be the possibility that these statues could come to life at any moment. Plus, the different metals used for details such as the teeth, nipples and lips, breaks up the monotonousness of the bronze. This is a more accurate representation of what the human body is like. Also, the composition of the sculpture in the 5th century helped to augment the lifelikeness of the sculpture seen in the very natural position on which the Doryphoros is standing in. The contrapposito which the sculptor has created, perfectly represents how the human body would act and react when moved in such a way. This exalts the realism of the subject because the statue seems to have just moved into that position, and at any moment could move off again. Moreover, the lack of symmetry in the body’s movement prevents it from seeming too stilted and adds fluidity to his movement. This adds a lifelike quality to the statue.

The sculptures from the 5th century also aspire to be historical. They attempt to convey a story through this medium. However, this is especially difficult because there is a limit to the amount one can fit in a freestanding statue, and one must consider how to tell a story in a single pose. My point is that the action and composition of a statue can help the historical narrative of a statue, evident as both the Discobolos Boy and the Tyrannicides clearly tell a story. The Discobolos boy is at the top of his back swing and looks very powerful, almost noble in his action. The Tyrannicides have outstretched arms, holding swords, in a celebratory and commanding action. The pose that the Discobolos boy is unrealistic because one could not throw a discus in that manner, therefore, it is more idealistic. This is what throwing should look like. This suggests a very glorious history to the observer because this man was unique in his sport, the pentathlon and was obviously successful. One can also tell that this was probably his signature event, one in which he bested everyone else, and by not only this action, but the actual subject matter, this statue tells a story. The Tyrannicides evoke a much more tumultuous history. They do not seem as born soldiers but yet are holding swords in a powerful and glorious way. This action suggests to the viewer that they have done something in the past which has either changed affairs in a significant way, or have liberated something. They did both by removing a tyrant from Athens in 510BC and allowed the introduction of democracy. However, even a strange could recognise that there must be some great act involved because of their composition as their legs have a wide stance and their bodies are spread out. They are defending something and it gives a clear insight to Athenian history.

Accomplished by some of the subjects, and the statues were erected in their honour. The person who commissioned them wanted not only to honour their achievement, but also inspire others to do the same. Some also seem to be a template to the ideal citizen. The expression and inferred emotions of the subject inspire people to model their attitude to the one represented. The evidence is the reflective expression of the victor of the chariot race at the Pythian Games of the Charioteer of Delphi.  The viewer would expect the subject to be joyously celebrating the occasion, with his expression one of delight, not self restraint. The very stoic expression of the charioteer seems to contradict the situation and would inspire others that in victory, one should show dignity and restraint, especially when it is a personal victory. There is no other reason for the charioteer having such a reflective, pensive expression. This may also suggest that the person who commissioned the statue wanted to inspire greatness, but success should be treated like any other: with restraint. The point is that the detail on the sculptures would also be aspirational: the Riace Warriors are perfect when admiring their bodies. Their muscles are toned, but not too much to make them seem unrealistic. The perfection that they have should be what all men should want to be like. The Greek ideal was that physical beauty was also a sign of moral correctness. Therefore, these statues, with their exquisite detail (also present in the beauty of the Blonde Boy) and muscle rendering, have a subtextual message which the viewer in Ancient Greece would have understood. This is true of most adult males of this period. The physical perfectness is also a symbol of their firm morality, something which was very important. Therefore, it was empirical that the statues were ideal in their appearance, as to convey that message as well. In addition, the composition and the action of the statues is aspirational evident in that the Diadoumenos and the Doryphoros have very slight and restrained positions. Even the action of the Discobolos boy is not exuberant, but contained. This common theme represents how the Greeks believed that a good citizen should act in public. Restraint should be shown in public because that is right, it is a symbol of Greek identity and therefore the statues of the 5th century aspire to project this ideal through their actions.

The sculpture from the 5th century seeks to be athletic. The action of the statue is the most obvious way to demonstrate athleticism evidenced by the Discobolos boy. The torsion of his body emanates a kinetic energy, unseen in other sculpture, which evokes the most powerful sense of athleticism. The sheer power that this sculpture depicts is a way of portraying ultimate athleticism. There was nothing more challenging than the pentathlon and only a supreme athlete could succeed at this. This is an embodiment of this athlete and the viewer can appreciate the faultlessness of this specimen through the movement. Plus, even though it is powerful movement, it seems very fluid and natural. Intensive physical activity is second nature to this man and this is the ultimate sign of an athlete. Furthermore, the composition of sculpture helps to demonstrate athleticism presented in the gentle contrapposito of the Doryphoros. He is gently supporting himself on his spear yet his muscle definition remains and is almost emphasised by the ease with which they are displayed. For  one to be a true athlete, he should always be in peak form and by representing this man at rest, the viewer can appreciate what the ideal form of an athlete is. The statue aspires to be athletic without action which represents a different, but equally important aspect of athleticism: the rest after training or before a competition. By choosing an alternate aspect of athleticism, the sculpture has enhanced its own position as a semblance of athleticism. Additionally, the detail on a sculpture is also important if it aspires to be athletic as demonstrated by the perfect form of the Riace Warriors. The Warriors are the perfect representation of the human body. Their muscles are well rendered, toned and powerful and their beards and hair are neat. The perfection which exists from their arms, to their buttocks to their legs is the defining image of an athlete. They strive for perfection and by representing two men as such, these sculptures are the definition of athletic. Moreover, they can be admired from any angle and they are still immaculate. An athlete should be an all rounder. They train every part of their body to eliminate any small weakness. This is true of the Riace Warriors and they therefore are the pinnacle of athleticism.

The statues of the 5th century BC represent a new age of sculpture, with new forms and subjects being explored by the great sculptors of the time. However to achieve athleticism, history, lifelikeness and aspiration, they must combine different elements to be successful. By only considering one aspect of sculpture, and neglecting others, the sculpture seems slightly imperfect. However, when the sculptor is able to find the correct mixture of action, composition, detail, expressions, emotions and proportions, they can achieve any desired effect with their creation.

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