ATHENS — With beauty trends, what goes around comes around — and sometimes it takes 2,500 years to close the loop.
That is among the takeaways of “Kallos: The Ultimate Beauty,” an exhibition examining the ancient Greek’s veneration of “kallos” — or external and internal beauty — that opens at the Museum of Cycladic Art in Athens on Sept. 29. L’Oréal is its sponsor.
Today, inner beauty and well-being are playing an increasingly vital role yet again in the beauty industry, which is broadening its scope of message, products and categories as consumers demand a more holistic and inclusive vision.
“The exhibition comes at the right time, because humanity is rediscovering today this concept that maybe was a bit lost for a while,” explained L’Oréal chairman Jean-Paul Agon during a recent interview at the museum. “It was invented by the Greeks, which is why I was from the beginning very seduced by the idea of this exhibition — because of the Kallos concept.”
The executive, who was appointed general manager of L’Oréal’s business in Greece at the age of 24, has a long-standing adoration of the country.
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“Inner value is something which is absolutely essential to L’Oréal,” he continued. “So essential, that we define L’Oréal with the famous sentence: ‘Because you’re worth it.’ But it is a new era of beauty today, where people think beauty is not just what you see.”
Rather, the modern take on beauty is multilayered and -faceted. When one speaks of a “beautiful person,” “it means that he has ‘kallos’ — a soul that is beautiful,” said Sandra Marinopoulou, president and chief executive officer of the Museum of Cycladic Art.
The sweeping Kallos show in the bijou museum founded by her aunt culls 322 antiquities — such as statues, terra-cottas, jewelry and perfume bottles — from Greece, the Italian peninsula and the Vatican, 280 of which have never been shown publicly before. The exhibit, which weaves in philosophical ideas, primarily focuses on the 7th century to the 1st century BCE, with an emphasis on the 6th, 5th and 4th centuries.
“It is when logos started, and logos is that logic with sentiment and with science, when mythology starts to live,” said Nicholas Chr. Stampolidis, the museum’s outgoing director, who will become the general director of the Acropolis Museum, during an interview. “Logos is prevailing, which is the pre-Socratic philosophers, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and the others.”
The show, which was the brainchild of executives from both the museum and L’Oréal, is not structured chronologically, but rather organized transversally into two main sections: Beautification and Beauty.
“It’s like a laboratory, a proposition. It’s not scientific research time-wise. It is seen in a different intellectual way, and not in a chronological, historical way,” said Marinopoulou.
The show opens with a marble statue by Kallimachos of a dancing Laconian maiden, with her mantle billowing behind her and wrought so finely that light shines through, dating from between 420 and 415 BCE.
“We tried to have from all the museums of mainland Greece and island — or insular — Greece the best of the best pieces, so to understand that the notion of beauty was not an Athenian concept, but it was well-spread and dispersed all over Greece, Asia Minor and Magna Graecia, that means in southern Italy and Sicily,” said Stampolidis, during a tour.
“So it was a notion of Greek culture all over the Mediterranean and the Ancient World,” he continued.
In the exhibition’s first room is displayed a clay red-figured hydria with a depiction of Sappho, the Archaic Greek poet, writing one of her poems that can be read with the help of a microscope, since the details are so exacting.
“If we read Homer and the lyric poetry of the 7th century, it started with the external beauty but slowly — if you read the contextual path of the written verses — then you understand it is not only that,” said Stampolidis.
He then pointed to an ancient vase from Chiusi, Italy, with a representation of the fictional character Penelope sitting on a stool by a loom, where — as a faithful wife — she wove and unraveled her weaving to avoid remarrying. Penelope is not only physically beautiful, but her loyalty and energetic nature contribute to her beauty, explained Stampolidis.
A beauty and beautification-related room has as its centerpiece a marble statue of Aphrodite after a bath, drying her hair, dating from 1st century BCE and created in the Greek city of Rhodes. It is, according to the director, the closest to Praxiteles’ rendition of the goddess of love and beauty, according to descriptions.
Next door is a room displaying perfume and unguent containers.
“We have many, many different types of perfume bottles coming from antiquity,” explained Ioannis Fappas, a curator at the museum, who pointed to one that had contained rose-scented oil and others that once held saffron-scented oil and iris-scented oil.
“These three perfume oils were among the most popular perfumes of antiquity,” he said.
Fappas highlighted a striped perfume vase with a rounded middle from Lydia, an Iron Age kingdom of southwestern Asia Minor, which had housed aromatic bakkaris that Sappho linked to Aphrodite in poems.
Two vases depict perfume oil-selling themes.
“Perfumes in antiquity were very, very expensive,” said Fappas.
Ancient Greeks used unguents and creams, as well, and these came in specially designed pots, on show, too.
Sometimes objects in the exhibition appear repeatedly. That’s the case, for instance, with the gold necklace ornamented with lanceolate leaves, giving a feathered effect, whose design also appears painted on a terra-cotta bust of a woman and decorating a clay black-glazed pyxis. It’s the only time the three pieces have been shown together anywhere.
Earrings, broaches, pins, combs and mirrors are on display in the hairstyles section. In the part devoted to “kallos of mortals” are examples of graffiti from antiquity about beautiful people, and representations of famous figures of the time — real and divine — such as Alexander the Great, and heroes like Heracles and Achilles.
“They are described as being very beautiful. Apart from the beauty of their bodies and faces, they had beauty in their souls, because they were brave and wanted to do things for the community,” said Fappas.
Another major work, coming from the Archaeological Museum of Eretria and lent out for the first time, is a marble sculpture representing Theseus, the mythical hero of Athens, abducting Antiope, a legendary queen of the Amazons.
There’s a marble relief depicting Leda’s erotic encounter with Zeus disguised as a swan.
“You can understand that even gods were attracted by human beauty, and they wanted to capture it, so that it belonged to them forever,” said Stampolidis.
Other works represent the likes of archaic and classical kallos.
The exhibit, overall, is about understanding beauty.
“Sappho has the best quote on that,” said Stampolidis, who explained she was asked: “’What is beauty? Where can we find it?’ She says, ‘Whatever one loves.’”
“Kallos: The Ultimate Beauty” runs through Jan. 16, 2022.
“We’d love this exhibition to travel around the world, because in every country of the planet this could resonate strongly, since it’s very relevant,” said Agon.
The hope, said Marinopoulou, is that after a person sees the show, “the moment he leaves, he will understand that beauty is both inside and outside.”
“More than he thought,” said Agon.
“And maybe,” added Marinopoulou, “it makes you feel you want to be a better person.”
“I see this also as a fantastic way to deepen our own knowledge of beauty,” said Agon, referring to L’Oréal’s teams. “This helps us tremendously to understand our mission, which is to bring the best of beauty to everyone around the world.”
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