In Civilisations episode 2, Professor Mary Beard explores images of the human body in ancient art, from Mexico and Greece to Egypt and China. Mary seeks answers to fundamental questions at the heart of ideas about civilisations. Why have human beings always made art about themselves? What were these images for? And in what ways do some ancient conventions of representing the body still affect us now? In raising these questions, Mary explores how the way we look can influence our ideas of what is civilised.
The colossal prehistoric Olmec heads in Mexico set the scene. In a culture with no written record, all we can do is puzzle about what these images were for, whom they represented, and why they were constructed. Mary Beard moves to other ancient cultures where more evidence has survived. She looks at images that are far more than art objects – images from Egyptian statues to the terracotta warriors of ancient China that actively participate in the social world, that teach men and women how to behave, that assert power and assuage loss. Mary explores what makes a ‘realistic’ image of the human form.
She looks at the ‘Greek Revolution’, the extraordinary process in the sixth and fifth centuries BCE, which saw the sculpture of the human body dramatically change from a series of static formulaic images to what we now take as living naturalism. Mary shows that Greek ideas of the human form influence the way we look to this day.