By THÉRÈSE MARGOLIS
Cultured 18th century British gentlemen were known for their appreciation of Greco-Roman art, and more than a few of these refined art aficionados made their way to Italy to procure a classic piece of history or two for their own personal collections. (They seldom ventured into Greece because, at the time, it was under Ottoman rule.)
Over the years, this British obsession with classic Hellenist forms morphed into a new style of art, neoclassicism, which essentially allowed the English to borrow on the idealized bodies of Greco-Roman art to interpret their contemporary selves.
Other European nations soon followed suit, adopting a blend of romanticism and neoclassicism as their artistic ideals.
But no country at the time was so obsessed with the human and divine beauty established by the early Grecians as Great Britain.
In 1755, Johann Winckelmann, the first modern historian of art, published his “Thoughts on the Imitation of Greek Art in Painting and Sculpture,” in which he uncompromisingly designated Greek art as the “most perfect form from the hands of man and the only model to be followed.”
Eventually, the obsession with Hellenic art would give way to more modern forms of expression, but the art that the British lords and elite collected over the years would become a national treasure and the focus of countless British museums.
An exhibition of some of those works, titled “Belleza y virtud: Coleccionismo inglés de arte clásico” (“Beauty and virtue: English collectionism of classic art”) opened at Mexico’s National Museum of Anthropology on Friday, Dec. 21.
The collection of more than 112 sculptures and paintings spans the Greek and Roman classic periods from the fourth century B.C. to the third century A.D, as well as England’s neoclassic period during the 18th century.
Open to the public free of charge through April 29, the exhibit provides an insight into Britain’s Age of Enlightenment, during which all things Greco-Roman were cherished.
Some of the works have been restored, often with misplaced pieces from other sculptures, and some have been castrated or had their genitals covered over to accommodate prudish British values.
One of the most impressive pieces in the collection is a replica of the Discobolus of Myron, which is on permanent exhibit at the British Museum.
The majority of the pieces in the collection are on loan from a number of museums in Liverpool, England, as part of an exchange program for the loan of a Maya exhibit lent to that city in 2015, but there are also several pieces that belong to Mexican museums, including the Soumaya Museum and the San Ildefonso Museum.
The Anthropology Museum is located at located at Avenida Reforma and Mahatma Gandhi in Mexico City’s Chapultepec Park, and is open to the public Tuesday through Sunday from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.