Thursday, May 12, 2005

How Art Made the World

BBC NEWS: In art, "...human bodies hardly ever look realistic.

They are invariably exaggerated, distorted and twisted into un-realistic representations. The Venus of Willendorf is a very early representation of the human body.

It's a 30,000-year-old statuette which was discovered in a remote valley in Austria. It has a huge stomach and breasts, but almost non-existent arms and face - a body shape that no one in prehistoric Europe would have possessed.

A detail from one of the Riace Bronzes, BBC
The Riace Bronzes show how the Greeks discovered realism and then abandoned it. Similarly, the Greeks, having discovered how to create images of the human form that looked realistic had, within a generation, abandoned realism.

Take the The Riace Bronzes, a pair of bronze statues, discovered by a diver at the bottom of the Bay of Naples in 1974. At first glance they appear to be realistic, beautiful representations of two Greek athletes.

But when art historians looked closer they noticed their chests were too symmetrical, their spines too deep, their coccyx too small to be realistic.

Greek sculptors had exaggerated their bodies to try to make them look like their gods.

It was a bizarre mystery. Why do we have this hardwired human instinct to exaggerate images of the human body? To find the answer, we threw ourselves into the exploration not just of art history but of the human mind.

We talked to brain scientists and psychologists and filmed bizarre experiments with other animals, such as seagulls. And we discovered the remarkable fact that all human beings have an in-built predisposition to exaggerate the body, to take what is valued in our culture and accentuate it in a deliberately unrealistic way."