People associate themselves with their bodies. Bodies become instruments for various non-verbal manifestations at all levels of communication. In everyday life, a person uses their body in order to demonstrate to themselves and to others their physical strength, willpower, tastes, views, etc. Artists refer to their own or someone else's body to reflect on creative, philosophical or current issues. The whole history of art, when observed from this point of view, becomes a field for the conflict of opposing ideas related to physicality within the framework of different religious and local traditions. And in communities, at least declaring their freedom from these limits - a series of reactions and counter-reactions to the attitude towards human body.
Pheidias, Marble statue from the West pediment of the Parthenon, 438-432 BCE (Smith, 1892)
The history of art, even with the most categorical classification, cannot be imagined as a series of separate unrelated stages. Even the most drastic breakthroughs in art are rooted in a complex web of education, influences and impressions. Any work of art is an “ideological palimpsest”, analysing which one can remove layer by layer, finding rhymes, conscious or unconscious references to pieces in a history that is losing its linearity (Abe, Saleh & Elgammal, 2013). Thus, one of the methods of analysis, based on the inclusion of works of art in the historical and environmental context, can complement the impression received and provide some food for thought.
The visual tradition of the classical era is an instant association to the discussion about physicality and the ideals of beauty. The works of ancient Greek and Roman masters form the basis of the aesthetic code of our culture (Bychkov & Sheppard, 2010). Under certain assumptions and not quite seriously one can also recall the principle of kalokagathia (an Ancient Greek concept of ethical and aesthetic ideal with a coherence of bodily, moral and spiritual qualities), having in mind the visual-behavioural image of social success enshrined in the mass consciousness (Jaeger, 1945). But it often happens that the alleged visual representation of certain qualities leads, on the one hand, to the formation of strong stereotypes, and, on the other hand, to the fact that gradually all the aspirations of the human will begin to concentrate around a purely external, superficial compliance with given standards.
Kostis Fokas, Untitled, 2019 (Fokas, 2019)
Body in the ancient Greek tradition was praised and scrutinized. This distinctive mixture of reverence and detached observation can be seen in the works of the contemporary Athenian photographer Kostis Fokas. The models in his photographs are depicted very sculpturally. Framing with focusing on individual parts of the body in Fokas' works sometimes resembles fragmented ancient statues. Just like the ancient Greek artists, he works outside the aesthetic field, actively engaging in the space of social and political problems (Tanner, 2006). However, behind a thin outer layer of similarities and the predestination of rhymes, his art carries a completely new ideological message. The Classical and then Christian traditions left beauty, both in the narrow and in the broad sense, in the domain of the unattainable divine (Bychkov & Sheppard, 2010; Brown, 2007). Fokas releases beauty and records its manifestations with the cold thoroughness of a documentarian. Being liberated, this beauty ceases to impose any conditions, make demands or set boundaries and divisions. Sexuality doesn’t imply provocation, nor does romance imply the union of a woman and a man. All in all, the widely accepted grading based on external parameters is outdated, simplified and does not mean anything anymore.
The photographs of Kostis Fokas are almost surreal. He uses the method of observing the body in a familiar environment of everyday life, but from a completely new angle. And this angle of perception, of course, goes beyond visual. What is instantly striking in his works is the celebrated freedom of distinctiveness. The nudity of his heroes becomes a declaration of complete openness and therefore strength. The eroticism of the images is not an instrument of manipulation with viewers’ basic instincts, it acts itself as a manifesto of life.
Kostis Fokas, Untitled, 2018 (Fokas, 2018)
It can be said that these photographs reinterpret the concept of heroic nudity, which traditionally involved an idealised representation of a naked body in order to emphasize the heroic or divine characteristics of the depicted (Osborne, 1997). This concept originated in Archaic Greece and received new life during the Renaissance and then the heyday of neoclassical art in the 18th century, and it embellished reality, as if equalizing the exceptional personal qualities of the model with the external characteristics (Clark, 1956; Parmelee, 1993; Gay, 2014). Transformed heroic nudity, however, does not need additional idealization, nor does it need a role model.
In the information era, when people's aesthetic receptors are being under constant attack by motley advertising and other people's self-presentation, calling to join the endless pursuit of unattainable standards of beauty and success, the tendency of appearance of such strong and expressive statements as the works of Kostis Fokas seems to be a hope for finding psychological rehabilitation in art. His models are god-like and at the same time very alive, this is not an abstract unattainable ideal, but already existing closely studied beauty of everyday life and of every person.
Contemporary art, regardless of the period, cannot exist apart from a contemporary agenda and in one way or another carries a certain socially significant message. It is an example of visual continuity that should show that it is completely unnatural for the modern world to get stuck in the tradition of cultural and social stereotypes, in an atmosphere of segregation and lack of freedom of self-determination or self-expression.
The past is always a good teacher, both if one adopts the best of its heritage and if one learns not to choose dead-end paths for the development of thought. Often, as in the case studied above, these lessons come together to form a timely aesthetic and social statement in its own right.
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Pheidias. (438-432 BCE). Marble statue from the West pediment of the Parthenon. H: 81.28 cm (max); L: 188 cm; D: 56 cm. The British Museum, London, United Kingdom. Retrieved from https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/G_1816-0610-99