Do we find certain people sexy because we have been unduly influenced by the anatomical preferences of a sculptor who has been dead for over 2,500 years? George Hersey looks at the enduring and sometimes sinister legacy of classical art
Western figure art has traditionally proposed specific proportions for the human physique - proportions that supposedly assure maximum beauty and sexual attractiveness. The formulas, which have variants, go back to the Greek sculptor Polykleitos in the fifth century bc, who is said to have made male and female statues embodying them. His original works are lost but there exist what are commonly agreed to be ancient copies. The male statue is known as the spearbearer and the female as the wounded amazon. We are told that Polykleitos wrote a treatise on his system, also lost, which was entitled simply The Canon.
As it has generally been applied, Polykleitos's system involves measuring a body in units derived from the height of that body's head. Total height should be between seven and eight heads, with a certain flexibility as to the length of the legs. However, the main subdivisions at nipples, umbilicus, and groin must be respectively at the levels of two, three, and four heads measuring from the top down. Similar proportions are enjoined, in heads and head-fractions, for the arms and hands. It is not generally realised that Leonardo's famous drawing in the Venice Academy, which shows a man with his arms and legs spread into two different positions, was made to illustrate Polykleitos's canon.
An enormous number of classical, Renaissance, and later images of the human figure possess these proportions. Michelangelo used them over and over again, as did Durer, Raphael, and many others. Even today the canon still pervades life-drawing classes and commercial art. Almost all the vast literature on human anatomy for artists is Polykleitan. The system got ferociously complex and body parts were measured and located down to the tiniest fractions of the basic module. Various number series - arithmetic, geometric, harmonic, Fibonacci, Golden Section, etc - were read into the measurements as well.
This powerful prescriptive current in western art has been in strong contrast to the real-life diversity of human physiques. The literature of physical anthropology reveals that only a minority of humans are constructed according to the Polykleitan canon, a fact easily confirmed by observation. Yet the formula nonetheless exerts what Darwinians would call sexually selective pressure. Sexual selection is mate choice that works toward evolutionary change. For example male birds of paradise have their beautiful long tails because, for thousands of generations, female birds of paradise have greatly preferred long-tailed mates over short-tailed ones. Through the centuries, therefore, the short-tailed birds have gotten fewer and fewer chances to mate, and there were progressively fewer of them to do so. Long tails, as the biologists would say, were being selected for, and short tails were being selected against.
The eugenics movement was particularly interested in sexual selection that favoured Polykleitan proportions. In Nazi Germany a plan for state-controlled breeding of such individuals was proposed and in part implemented. Inspired by the writings of Cesare Lombroso, Francis Galton, and Max Nordau, Himmler calculated that, under a proper breeding programme the German people could become fully Polykleitan within 120 years. Then, in other words, practically all Germans would look like antique or Renaissance statues. Eugenic organisations that embraced this ideal, such as the National Association for Birth Control and Sexual Hygiene, proliferated. Books on one aspect or other of state-controlled sexual selection were written by authors like Roderich von Engelhardt, Paul Kranhals, and Edgar Jung, not to mention Pitirim Sorokin, later famous as a Harvard sociologist. A magazine called Rasse published tables of bodily proportions, with subsections on faces, noses, ears, and hands that were to be selected for or against. By 1934, Wilfried van der Will reports, in Prussia alone there were 31,000 compulsory sterilisations on people considered to be eugenically sub par, and 50,000 such sterilisations took place in 1935. Many of these people were mentally retarded or had fatal diseases; but many others were unacceptable solely because their bodies were "deformed" - in other words because they were too far from the Polykleitan ideal. Much Nazi (and other) anti-Semitic propaganda dealt with the supposed shortcomings of Jewish physiques.
One influential figure in this movement was Paul Schultze-Naumburg - an architect, painter, school administrator, and prolific writer. In Kunst und Rasse, 1928, he proposed the art of Rubens as the best place to find proper reproductive goals for the future German race. As a source of countertypes, types to be selected against, he suggested Rembrandt.
Schultze-Naumburg followed up these proposals with minute analyses of the bodies and faces portrayed by the two artists. Rubens's self-portraits and his portraits of his wives turn out to be fully Polykleitan. Their bodies always total out to the right numbers. Correspondingly, Rembrandt's figures are practically never correct - usually they are too short - and their bodily subdivisions of nipples, umbilicus, groin come at the wrong places.
If we look at a representative Rubens male, the Berlin St Sebastian, and a representative female, the Andromeda, also in Berlin, we see not only proper proportions but, as desirable dividends, round skulls, heavy red lips, strong axial noses, soft hair - features, by the way, that characterised Rubens himself. We also see short tibias and fibulas, pronounced calves, columnar torsos, and lots of muscle fiber cupped into distinct masses. All these traits added up to Schultze-Naumburg's formula for sexually selectable bodies.
Then he turns to Rembrandt's etching "Adam and Eve" (1638). To the author of Kunst und Rasse these pathetic wretches could hardly be the begetters of anything as noble as the human race; they look more like a pair of born criminals. Adam stands uncertainly, leaning his chunky body against a rock, his pigeon-toed right foot drawn slightly up. With his sharp widow's peak, twisted nose, and scraggly beard he has an animal face, almost a snout. Eve is more solid and rounder, less wiry and hairy, and more symmetrical, but still bestial with her head framed by a long ratty ponytail. Two of Schultze-Naumburg's scientific inspirers, Lombroso and Nordau, would have agreed. Lombroso would have emphasised the couple's megacephaly (large heads), asymmetry, and physiognomical atavism (looking like apes or Neanderthals). Nordau would have discoursed on their pathological hirsuteness (polytrichism - a disease of evolutionary degeneration).
From Rembrandt and his physical types, according to Schultze-Naumburg, a river of pollution has ever since flowed through German art, constantly proposing degenerate reproductive ideals. The worst, he says, is the art of the early 20th century. "In figure scenes," he writes, "exotic features reign. Among these types, furthermore, there is a strong tendency not to portray the nobler examples but rather a tendency that runs from primitive humans to grinning grotesques of bestial cavemen showing off their very disfigurements. Over it all we see the preference for the signs of decadence, an army of the fallen, the sick, and the bodily deformed I If one wants the art most symbolic of our own time it is that of the idiot, the prostitute, and the woman with pendulous breasts. One must call things by their right name. It is truly a hell of subhumans that here spreads before us, and one breathes a sigh of relief when one moves from this atmosphere to the pure air of other culture, especially the antique and early Renaissance."
These artists are particularly to be condemned in that they glorify female types that ought to be resolutely avoided as mates: "Almost never has woman been so dishonourably and unappetisingly displayed as in German exhibitions during the last 12 years," says Schultze-Naumburg, "to the point that disgust and loathing overcome us again and again. Here there is not the slightest hint of the health of the human body and the splendour of the divinely naked form, but rather voracious lust of the kind felt only by outcasts of the lowest stamp." He has in mind the work of Rouault, Chagall, Kokoschka, and Otto Dix.
The fall of the Nazis, of course, brought an end to state-mandated Polykleitan breeding. Today Rouault, Chagall, Kokoschka, Dix are almost as revered as are Rubens, Michelangelo, and Polykleitos himself. And Rembrandt as much or more so. But if today we do not actively select against types represented by Schultze-Naumburg's countermodels, we nonetheless do select in favour of his positive models, and have always done so.
From the viewpoint of human evolution I admit it would be hard, probably impossible, to prove that western bodies have actually evolved so as to line up more with Polykleitan precepts. (On the other hand, if humans bred like birds of paradise, and in each generation only the most perfect male specimens got access to females, western humans might indeed by now resemble Greek statues.) But in any event there is no doubt that, given a choice and all else being equal, modern western men and women, almost certainly under selective pressure from the classical artistic tradition, do prefer Polykleitan to non-Polykleitan mates, and want Polykleitan children. Laboratory and field experiments and surveys have proved this over and over - and this notwithstanding that only a minority of humans actually have these proportions. One of this summer's international scholarly/scientific sessions at the Third Culture Copenhagen Conference, will deal with just this phenomenon. It is entitled "Beauty and Biology".
George L. Hersey is professor of the history of art at Yale University. His book The Evolution of Allure: Sexual Selection from the Medici Venus to the Incredible Hulk is published in July by MIT Press, price Pounds 19.95.