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The Riace bronzes

Notes on How Art Made the World – More Human Than Human 1/5

In this BBC series from 2004, Dr Nigel Spivey investigates everything from cave paintings to ceramics, pyramids to palaces and icons to artifacts across five continents and 100,000 years of history.

Although this one isn’t available online, you can rent it from LoveFilm (or Netflix) and failing that, it is available in Amazon UK and Amazon.com there is also an excellent micro-site on the PBS website with in-depth information and links.

How Art Made the World : Episode 1, More Human Than Human

The main theme of this episode is about how people have rarely created images of the body that are realistic. By understanding this we can not only understand something about our bodies, but about human nature in general.

The Riace bronzes

The Riace bronzes

The Venus of Willendorf, in the Natural History Museum in Vienna is a small Venus figure that her exaggerated breasts, hips and sexual organs. These exaggerations are clear symbols of fertility, however what is interesting is how the artist ignored other parts of the body, such as her face and arms. Similar Venus figures with similar exaggerations and omissions of the respective features have cropped up all over Europe and Russia, created in the following centuries. Professor Ramachandran explains why features were exaggerated. By making comparisons to research done with Herring Gulls and how their chicks, which are stimulated by the red stripe on their parents beaks, can be over stimulated by simulating a beak with additional stripes. He suggests that the same neurological process stimulated early man, which is why they exaggerated these features of fertility over the others.

Moving forward several thousand years. The Egyptians, who valued consistency and order in their society, abandoned the exaggerations of their ancestors and chose to use a mathematical approach to creating images of the body. They chose to show each part of the body from it’s clearest angle, becoming their recognisable style and preserved this style for thousands of years. When the Ancient Greek’s culture came into contact with the Egyptians, this ignited an artistic revolution across the Greek city states. The Greek culture wanted a more realistic representation of the figure for their temples and as with the Kritios Boy they measured and reproduced the body to exact dimensions in their sculptures. A generation later, however, the Greeks abandoned this ultra realism preferring exaggerated representations of the body (See more in my previous article with clip) based on the aestetic theories created by Polykleitos such as the Riace Bronzes. Dr Ramachandram explains that art needs this exaggeration to be interesting.

The programme concludes what we choose to exaggerate “is where the magic comes in” and the choice of what to exaggerate has changed over the centuries to match changing human values.

You can view my notes on programme 2, The Day Pictures Were Born here

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