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Ancient Greece
Ancient Greece

Ancient Greeks were preoccupied with philosophy and mathematics, but there was something in their culture that was the equivalent of Egypt's obsession with order and precision. The Greeks were fixated with the human body, and to them the perfect body was an athletic body. They believed their gods took human form, and in order to worship their gods properly, they filled their temples with life-size, life-like images of them.

The Greeks discovered they had to do interesting things with the human form, such as distorting it in lawful ways.

Greek sculptors first learned sculpting and quarrying techniques from the Egyptians. They initially created truly realistic depictions of the human body, like Kritian Boy (above), but within a generation they stopped this realism because it was too real -- for some reason they were dissatisfied with it. Though they didn't know it, just like the hunter-gatherers thousands of years ago they were looking for something more human than human. The Greeks discovered they had to do interesting things with the human form, such as distorting it in lawful ways in order to exaggerate the brain's aesthetic response to that body.

A 450 BC Greek sculptor called Polyclitus developed a break-through technique that allowed sculptures to be created showing the physical potential of an athlete, something both relaxed and yet ready to move. With this radical new system, the artist could at last represent physical perfection -- as personified by a famous pair of Greek statues called the Riace Bronzes, circa 450 BC (see Gallery). At first glance they resemble human beings, but in fact it's not anatomically possible for a person, however athletic, to look like them. They are something more human than human. They are unrealistic bodies where reality has been exaggerated. A further case, then, of peak shift.

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