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A new visual Homer?

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One of the models featured in the 2011 Pirelli calendar.

12 January 2011

In late November 2010, the eagerly awaited Pirelli calendar for 2011 was launched. Since the 1960's, the Pirelli calendar has been one of the most celebrated icons of corporate communication, bringing together world-class photography, fashion, designers and models in a statement of female, most often naked, beauty.

The calendar is not sold, but only given away as a highly-prized corporate gift. For 2011, Karl Lagerfeld was invited to create the calendar. The results have just been revealed, and Lagerfeld's theme is intriguing: ancient Greek myths.

Lagerfled has shot his calendar with both nude women and men, all posing as different ancient Greek mythological characters. With stylised props and pieces of costume (including some unusual gold nipple and penis covers), Lagerfeld gives us a total of 21 protagonists from the Greek legends including Aphrodite, Athena, Artemis, Apollo, Orpheus, Hestia, Ajax and Aurora.

It is not surprising that ancient Greece should be so much at the forefront of Lagerfeld's mind.

Fashion designers have often looked to ancient Greece (I am reliably informed that Vera Wang's 'ancient Greece' wedding dress is a hit), as have perfume makers (look for example at Kouros by YSL). Ancient Greece has also regularly been in our cinemas over the past couple of years, with films like 300, Agora, Percy Jackson, Clash of the Titans, Alexander and Troy.

More importantly, the idealisation of female beauty has an excellent precedent in ancient Greece. Presenting the female nude was, however, actually a more complicated business in ancient Greece than we might expect: a fully nude female statue of Aphrodite was not created until the end of the 4th century BC by Praxiteles, breaking the taboo that women were never to be shown naked (see an earlier column).

On the other hand, Lagerfeld's 'genitally-covered-up' men seem positively like shrinking-violets in relation to ancient Greece, where male statues were most often shown completely naked (it was the Vatican, amongst others, who chose to add marble fig leaves to such statues when found to protect their modesty).

But most interesting of all is how Lagerfeld has (apparently jokingly) described himself: he is "the visual version of Homer. I did with my camera what Homer did with his pen, although we understand that he probably didn't use a pen."

Not only are Lagerfeld's modest comments spot on (Homer was composed and recited through a process of oral narrative for centuries before being written down, indeed some scholars claim that there was no one creator called 'Homer', but that the Iliad and the Odyssey are creations of generations of oral poets slowly improving and refining each other's work), but his desire to be a visual version of Homer also echoes many such attempts in the ancient world.

Many vase painters and sculptors re-told the tales of Homeric epic through the visual arts, not simply 'illustrating' the written/oral epics, but sometimes creating their own versions of the story.

Lagerfeld has put himself, and the Pirelli Calendar, squarely in a succession of artists dating all the way back to ancient Greece itself.

Michael C Scott is a Research Fellow and lecturer at the Faculty of Classics, Cambridge University. He is also the author of From Democrats to Kings and the monogram Delphi and Olympia. For more information go to: www.michaelcscott.com

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