The Kouros in Greek art was a statue type that arose in the Archaic period. They were freestanding, beardless, nude men, with arms held straight down, face pointed forwards, and legs slightly separated in a formulaic advancing posture. Although some were dedications to Apollo, as first believed, others were made as grave markers, statues to athletic victors, or dedications to other gods. So popular was the form that they were found across the Greek speaking world for centuries, some as large as 33 feet tall. Although there is noticeable development between the earlier and later Kouros, the relative consistency in the form over centuries and locations attests to a deep resonance with important, fundamental Greek beliefs at this time.
Historically, the development of the Kouros ties into the social developments of the Archaic period in many ways. After years of smaller, less complex sculptural art, the Kouros developed at a time of increasing complexity in Greek society. The beginning of the Archaic period saw a startling development of government, trade and the market system, cross-cultural influence, warfare, philosophy, architecture, and aesthetics. After the relative disarray of the middle ages, the Archaic period saw a reorganization of the Greek world, in a manner that reflected new ideas of human order, significantly based on ethnic ideas rather than hereditary power. In many ways, these changes constituted a move away from more immediate, old tribal ideas towards greater, more logic-based ideas of order.
In parallel to the ordering of human governance, rose the first ideas of philosophical ordering of the universe, and a tandem ordering in Greek aesthetic ideas. One term, Kosmos, came to be applied both to ideas of civic order and the universe, as well as to architectural and artistic ideas of how to make things beautiful. The new ideas of aesthetic order, which expressed the increasingly complex moral values of the Greeks, are best seen in the manifestations of the new idea of Kalokagathea in the Kouros. A translation of this word amounts to something along the lines of “state of being beautiful and good.” Here we see the mixing of ideas of physical form and morality or social value.
In the Kouros, this sentiment took on an even more complex form, as the obvious and crucial use of specific proportions and shapes in unrealistic bodies, across separate Greek nations, evidenced the presence of mathematical ideas of harmony and symmetry, and therefore order, in Greek understanding of Kalokagathea. It is my belief that these ideas of order and harmony were importantly related to the development of the polis, a complicated, ordered settlement type, as well as emerging Greek theories on life. In these theories, which would continue to be developed, physical forms were seen as manifestations of inner or intrinsic values of other sorts. Different forms and proportions were seen as meaningful, in ways that would later be developed by thinkers such as Pythagoras. It was this period which significantly also saw the development of the architectural orders, a detail of obvious relevance. Beauty, goodness, and use in these theories were seen as part of the same thing, and it was during the Archaic period that these ideas began to be ordered in sculpture into physical ideals, essentially, an increasingly refined ordering of kalokagathea.
Importantly, the Kouros sculptural form was derived from Egyptian statues, a fact which supports my assertion about the importance of order and proportion to the Kouros and Greek ideas of ‘goodness’, much in the manner of mathematical proportions used in temple architecture. This is because the Egyptian art that so influenced the Greeks was based on an incredibly strict canon, with highly regulated, mathematically ordered and geometrically derived forms. The statues by which many Kouros were influenced, for example, had a strict overall height of 21.25 units. Measurements between different parts were equally regulated, for example between the feet and waist, between the nipples and top of head, between the outside of the shoulders and the outside of the hips. Further reinforcing this mathematical centrality is the method used to construct these statues; evidence shows the use of square grids on all sides create perfectly proportioned symmetry. This symmetry is hard to ignore in the figure, and based on the existence of painted works demonstrating ability to conceive of more complicated and active poses, stands as one of the likely reasons for the choice of this pose. Although the legs are not placed symmetrically, everything else is.
Computer aided analysis of the early Greek Kouros show definitively, using statistical analysis, that early Greek Kouros proportions were directly derived from Egyptian Ka statues. They show a similar strict symmetry, lack of emotion (generally), even use (the Ka statues were also used as funerary statues), and abstraction of the human body into a body of abstract shapes of perceived order and harmony. However, the Greeks took this emphasis on the importance of the human body, ordered and harmonious, one step further by removing all clothing, and by freeing the figure from the rock supports that the Egyptian statues relied on. Analysis show that, at least early on, Greeks relied upon the same type of mathematical grids seen in Egypt.
In this figure, the Getty Kouros, we see these elements at play, even in a work carved as late as 520 BC, and a remarkable resemblance to its Egyptian antecedent. Although through artistic development the head has assumed a slightly smaller proportion, the hips have become noticeably wider, and the definition of musculature has changed somewhat, the emphasis on symmetry and order remains. The arms remain at the sides, the legs remain almost exactly symmetrical if viewed from the front, and details as small as the curls on the head of the Kouros are identical and symmetrical. Additionally, just as in the Egyptian work, although the body is definitely approaching realism, certain body parts have been accentuated to increase representation of values associated with those features, while at the same time retaining a somewhat geometric nature that is manipulated to result in a whole that is a more harmonious sum of parts than an actual human body. It is the belief of John Symonds that it was in part for this reason that young male bodies were seen as the ideal – the “blooming” male body resulted in the finest combination of masculine and feminine bodily features in a harmonious whole unmatched by any other group.
The final images in this exhibit reinforce the idea of manipulated proportions and symmetry used by the Greeks in Kouros. Here we see how proportions such as waist width were manipulated to line up with one half of the total body width, with the calves, and with the feet.
In summary, symmetry and rational proportion and harmony were an essential aspect of Greek conceptions of ideal humans, in which physical form was seen as intrinsically linked to ‘goodness’ and other social values. As an aside, it turns out the Greeks may have been intuitively onto something, as thinkers such as Pythagoras would later find nature to be rife with mathematical ratios, and modern studies would find that physical symmetry was not only a determinant of attractiveness to the opposite sex, but also often an indicator of reproductive potential, as were proportions such as hip to chest ratios.
1. John Addington Symonds, A Prblem in Greek Ethics, 1901
2. The Male Figure in Egyptian and Greek Sculpture of the Seventh and Sixth Centuries B.C., Kim Levin, American Journal of Archaeology , Vol. 68, No. 1 (Jan., 1964), pp. 13-28
3.The Proportions of Some Archaic Greek Sculptured Figures: A Computer Analysis, Eleanor Guralnick, Computers and the Humanities , Vol. 10, No. 3 (May – Jun., 1976), pp. 153-169
4.Proportions of Korai, Eleanor Guralnick, American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 85, No. 3 (Jul., 1981), pp. 269-280
5. writings on mathematical formulas guaging beauty, George David Birkhoff