An over-dressed Victorian man looking at the nude Venus de Milo.

What do we mean when we say that someone has ‘classical’ good looks? Are male nudes in art appropriate viewing for family audiences? In looking at the arguments ignited by the opening, in 1854, of an exhibition of Greek and Roman statuary, Dr Kate Nichols explores the ways in which notions of beauty, morality and gender are intertwined.

It’s important to think about who’s excluded from these normative and frankly racist definitions of beauty, given credence by their connections to ‘the classical’

Kate Nichols

The efforts we make to shape our bodies to meet ideals border on the extreme. Earlier this summer advertisers of weight loss products enraged thousands of London tube-goers by asking: Are you body beach ready? The accompanying image showed a pitifully thin model in a tiny bikini. A recent survey points to a six-fold upsurge in the number of men using anabolic steroids, widely known to have damaging effects, to boost their muscles in the quest for a body of a Greek god.  

Where do ideas about beautiful bodies come from? In her recent book, Dr Kate Nichols, a researcher at CRASSH, explores the connections between beauty and morality, nudity and nakedness through the prism of public responses to the classical sculpture brought to the masses by the Crystal Palace at Sydenham. In 1854 these plaster cast representations of gods and heroes, many of them without a scrap of clothing, ignited fierce arguments that continue to trickle into contemporary discussions about bodies and perfection, what’s appropriate and what’s not. 

Nichols also looks at the debate about obscenity that arose specifically from displays of naked male sculpture at the Crystal Palace. To modern eyes, classical sculpture is the height of respectability, embodying tradition and (as the British Museum titled its recent blockbuster show) ‘defining beauty’. But this wasn’t always the case.

“Nude male sculptures had been on display in the British Museum since the early 1800s, with no complaints. The Crystal Palace attracted more than twice as many visitors as the British Museum – some 2 million each year, and from a truly mass audience of all social classes. For many, the idea of nudity being displayed to such mass audiences was profoundly shocking,” says Nichols.

On 8 May 1854, the Times published a letter addressed to the directors of the Crystal Palace. Designed for the Great Exhibition of 1851, the palace had been moved from Hyde Park to the south London suburb of Sydenham. Here, the building had been reassembled to house an exhibition which aimed to bring art and culture to the masses. The objects on display were arranged, in a series of giant ‘courts’, to tell the story of civilisation through art and architecture.

Signed by the Archbishop of Canterbury and several bishops, the petition asked that the plaster casts of nude male statues on show in the Greek Court be fitted with the ‘usual leaf’ to reflect the way in which certain parts of the body are covered in daily life. The ‘usual leaf’ is a rather endearing reference to the fig leaves which are frequently employed to preserve the modesty of artistic representations of the male human figure.  

“From the 16th century onwards, various Popes had insisted on deploying fig leaves to cover the genitals of male sculptures on display in public spaces in Italy. In 16th-century Florence, Michelangelo’s David was a particular point of contention,” says Nichols.

Reactions to the letter in the Times were mixed. The newspaper itself scoffed at the need to recreate the “earliest fashions of paradise” – but the bishops got their way. A specialist company was commissioned to make plaster fig leaves to cover the genitals of a number of male statues.

The Greek gods and heroes who found their genitals disappearing beneath pieces of foliage included the bulgingly muscular Farnese Hercules, the contorted figures of Laocoon and his sons, and the svelte Apollo Belvedere. “The casts of all three had been made from celebrated sculptures housed in Italy and were key points of reference for the educated elite taking the Grand Tour in order to broaden their aesthetic horizons,” says Nichols.

"The request from the Archbishop and his supporters was a thinly veiled way of saying that working-class visitors, and those untutored in classical art, would be unable to appreciate on a suitably cerebral level, the purity and beauty of classical sculpture. It’s an admission that you need to absorb a set of cultural techniques in order to look at art works – it’s not innate.”

The heated discussion about what we might today call the ‘appropriateness’ of nude sculpture was embedded in questions that provoked passionate feelings in Victorian society. The Victorian public was not familiar with art works showing undressed bodies. The Crystal Palace’s exhibition of the human form in plaster to a mass audience coincided with a growing concern with sexual morality.

“In the 1850s, activists were raising awareness of the problems associated with prostitution and discussing methods to control it. The year 1857 saw the passing of acts on marriage, divorce, and obscene publications, as state regulation of sexual conduct increased,” says Nichols. ”The tensions between what was beautiful, and should be admired, and what was obscene, and should be hidden from family viewing, threw up divides – especially when it came to male nudes.”

Victorian Britain was entrenched in biblical teaching. The presence at Sydenham of nude statues, accessible to all classes and all ages, provoked a flurry of vociferous pamphlets from some religious groups. Sensational stories (true and fabricated) were recorded: in 1862 Susan Flood, a young member of the Plymouth Brethren, was apparently so affronted by the nude ‘pagans’ displayed in the Crystal Palace that she smashed several plaster casts with her parasol.

It would be wrong, however, to presume that Victorian society was universally stuffy and prudish. “The Crystal Palace was, in some ways, a kind of theme park where people could have fun – there are fabulous photographs of Victorian women on water flumes in its grounds – but it was also the product of a mission to educate the masses," says Nichols.

"I’m fascinated by the ways in which unclothed Greek and Roman sculpture gave rise to two opposing viewpoints – on one hand, as a threat to morality and, on the other hand, as a vehicle for improving and uplifting the minds of visitors.”

The designer Owen Jones was responsible for selecting the classical sculpture for the Greek and Roman Courts. According to the Times, Jones reacted with ‘horror’ when the Palace directorate capitulated to the demands of the bishops and peers. He had even suggested that money spent at Sydenham "would save many thousands more from being spent on building gaols".

Jones was backed up by other commentators who saw the Crystal Palace contributing to the well-established association between viewing art and elevated moral conduct.

“These dialogues show how art was considered to be a powerful force for good. Belief in the improving power of art was the impetus for the foundation of many galleries in industrial cities. The Museums Act of 1845 enabled towns to levy local taxes to fund museums, on the grounds that culture was morally enhancing, and it was on this basis that galleries were founded in towns like Manchester, Birmingham, Blackburn and Leeds,” says Nichols.

Nichols’ exploration of responses to representations of the human figure touches on deep-seated notions about the body beautiful – and how idealised body shapes took root in public consciousness with Greek statues in particular setting the parameters for (impossible) perfection.

She reveals that the later 19th-century cult of body building, promoted by Eugen Sandow, took its inspiration from the athletic perfection of Greek figures with their honed-and-toned limbs and impressive six-packs, and the intellectual and moral prowess associated with ancient Greece. It was at the Crystal Palace that Sandow opened his first suburban ‘School of Physical Culture’ for men, women and children in 1899.

“The classically-inspired notion of beauty is emphatically one of idealised white European bodies. The Crystal Palace had a ‘natural history department’, featuring tableaux of models of indigenous peoples from all over the world – some of which were plaster casts of living people,” says Nichols.

“Europeans were notably absent from these displays, and several commentators claimed that Europeans were already represented by the Greek sculptures on show as objects of ‘fine art’, rather than ‘natural history’. This reinforced the racist hierarchy in which white Europeans epitomised beauty and ‘civilisation’, while non-Europeans represented savagery and ‘aesthetic under development’.”

Many were troubled, however, by the fact that both sets of sculptures were undressed. Much of the anxiety felt by the educated elite, on behalf of the uneducated masses who were untutored in art appreciation, turned on the fine distinction between dangerous naked and respectable nude – a boundary which is in many ways artificial, but required – and indeed still requires – constant policing.

“I’m interested in the ways in which the unclothed body in art gained respectability and also in ways that gender differences are played out in responses to male and female bodies in art. Campaigners at the Crystal Palace focused primarily on unclothed male bodies. The sculptures of, for example, Venus, were already deemed ‘nude’ and respectable. This disparity continues today – an exhibition of male nudes in Vienna in 2012 caused an outrage – whereas female nudes are ubiquitous and generally unquestioned, safely subsumed into the art historical category of the nude,” says Nichols.

”The idea that female bodies are acceptable objects for public scrutiny whereas male ones are dangerous and disruptive says a great deal about the relative power of men and women. The Crystal Palace debate shows that classical sculpture remained on the borders of respectability in the 1850s, when the public was less familiar with the nude-as-art. The Palace’s contribution to the history of the category ‘nude’ lies in its dissemination of the unclothed male form, exhibited as ‘art’, to a wide range of people. But with varying degrees of success as the letter from the Bishops suggests.”

The link between bodily beauty and classical sculpture is remarkably enduring. In its June 2015 issue, the glossy magazine Tatler asks: How posh is your body? Its satirical answers in relation to the upper-class female body (feet should be gracefully small, limbs honed but not muscled) decree that the neck should be “long, straight and alabaster” – a reference to the gleaming white materials of classical statuary. The feet of posh men should be long and elegant, speaking “of authority, and ruling, and staking out the boundaries of the Empire”.

“Ideas and ideals surrounding ‘the body beautiful’ based on classical sculpture are constantly repeated and reinforced in our culture. But there’s often little thought about where such ideas may have their origins. Art historical and archaeological discussions about the beauty of classical statuary developed in the contexts of imperialism, ‘scientific’ racism, and eugenics, and often made active contributions to these discourses. The split between the supposedly ‘European’ bodies of Greek sculpture in the ‘fine arts’ courts, and the non-European bodies in the ‘natural history department’ at the Crystal Palace is just one example” says Nichols.

Tatler connects looking classical with ‘the Empire’ and the upper classes – and perhaps implicitly with ‘good breeding’ or at least good social standing. Its feature is tongue-in-cheek and pokes fun at the ruddy faces of toffs who’ve overdone the great outdoors. But, as Nichols adds: “It’s important to think about who’s excluded from these normative and frankly racist definitions of beauty, given credence by their connections to ‘the classical’.”

Greece and Rome at the Crystal Palace: Classical Sculpture and Modern Britain, 1854-1936 by Kate Nichols is published by Oxford University Press.

Inset images: The Crystal Palace at Sydenham c.1910 (Wikimedia Commons); Farnese Hercules, Roman marble version (early 3rd century CE) of a Greek sculpture (4th century CE) (Wikimedia Commons); Souvenir photograph of body building entrepreneur Eugen Sandow posing as 'Farnese Hercules' (with fig leaf) c.1893 (Wikimedia Commons).

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