Thursday, May 31, 2007

The Capitoline Aphrodite and the Venus de Medici

The Capitoline Aphrodite (left)
The Venus de Medici (right)

Both of these female nudes illustrate the Classic pose known as the Venus Pudica, or Modest Venus, as it appears she is trying to cover her breasts and genitals with her hands. Both derive from the idea first exploited by Praxitiles in the Aphrodite of Knidos, but in a more compact and distinctive manner. Lord Clark contrasts the Capitoline with the the Praxitilean model:
The Knidian is thinking only of the ritual bath she is about to enter. The Capitoline is posing. Herself self-conscious, she is the product of self-conscious art. Her pose, whenever it was evolved, is the most complete solution in antique art of certain formal problems presented by the naked female body; and it is worth trying to see how this has been achieved. … At no point is there a plane or an outline where the eye may wander undirected. The arms surround the body like a sheath, and by their movement help to emphasize its basic rhythm. The head, left arm, and weight-bearing leg form a line as firm as the shaft of a temple. Approach the Knidian from the direction to which her gaze is directed, and her body is open and defenseless; approach the Capitoline, and it is formidably enclosed.

Clark is not fond of the Venus de Medici, referring to its "vapid elegance" as "stilted and artificial."

With these two characters branching off from the Praxitilean model, a schema for the female nude in western art has been established which will become standard visual practice for centuries. She will usually depict the goddess Aphrodite, generally with her Roman identity, Venus, and at some point around this time, it seems, she will no longer be the object of religious veneration or cult, or at least, not exclusively. Elements of the female nude from now on and until the modern era, however else they are configured, will often involve some relationship to the Knidia.

The elements of the female nude consist principally in her poses and her anatomy - as it is with the male nude - and how the different parts and gestures of the piece interact. We learn to look at the body - head, face, arms, legs, hands, feet, hair, genitalia, and whatever drapery there is, along with other parts of the scene such as the hydria or a shield - finding ways in which one part will parallel or contrast with another - as part to part and part to whole - creating or exploiting geometrical abstractions (as earlier in the Greek tradition) or not (starting in the Hellenistic age) and with more or less realistic and naturalistic modes of expression, and more or less abstract modes. The Classical ideal has been widely influential.

Also, of course, we find relations between the piece and ourselves, the audience, spectator, me, you.

Elements of the female nude are bound to include something about the social and erotic character of the person represented; when the cult is abandoned, women will be represented more as they are seen by sculptors and their audiences than by how the goddess is or was - worshiped. Miranda Marvin's review of the book, The Aphrodite of Knidos and her Successors: A Historical Review of the Female Nude in Greek Art. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995. Pp. 158. ISBN 0-472-10585-X) is worth reading for a survey of the Praxitilean model of the female nude.

Approaches to the female nude since the 19th century - when the Praxitilean ideal was both revived and challenged, have tended to problematize the subject.