Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The Esquiline Venus

The Esquiline Venus

Scholars are uncertain just when she might have been created. Here is how Lord Clark of Civilization describes her:

“...there was produced a bronze figure of a nude girl, perhaps a priestess of Isis, blinding her hair, which must have been a masterpiece. It is known to us in two marble replicas, of which the more complete is the statue in Rome known as the Esquiline Venus, the more vivid the torso in the Louvre. No doubt the original has been changed and elaborated by translation into marble, yet the copies have not lost the unity of the first idea. Somewhere not very far behind them is the work of an individual artist who, on the surviving evidence, must be reckoned the creator of the female nude. Not that the Esquiline girl represents an evolved notion of feminine beauty. She is short and square, with high pelvis and small breasts far apart, a stocky little peasant such as might be found still in any Mediterranean village. Maillol maintained that he could find three hundred in the town of Banyuls alone. Her elegant sisters from the metropolis would smile at her thick ankles and thicker waist. But she is solidly desirable, compact, proportionate, and in fact, her proportions have been calculated on a simple mathematical scale. The unit of measurement is her head. She is seven heads tall, there is a length of one head between her breasts, one from breast to navel, and one from the navel to the division of her legs. More important than these calculations... the sculptor has discovered what we may call the plastic essentials of the female body. Breasts will become fuller, waists narrower, and hips will describe a more generous arc; but fundamentally this is the architecture of the body that will control the observations of classically minded artists till the end of the nineteenth century and has been given fresh life by Maillol in our own day. (Clark, 114-119)

This became an important passage for me as I was learning to explore Greek sculpture, and sculpture in general. I was struck by that business of proportion - which is so important for the classical world, and for so much of art and architecture generally. I had known that underlying both Greek temples and sculptures of the human figure was a system of mathematical relations used by the artists - and likely to have been considered by the artist to possess or illustrate some particularly important quality about the nature of the universe. We think of an artist cocking his head, closing one eye, and looking at things next to his thumb, measuring and comparing things, finding how to represent it somehow.

Here, though, was a consideration of a work of art actually worked out in terms of the head as module to help describe the other parts. This system, which the Greeks imported from Egypt and adopted to their own ways, was instrumental for Greek and classical aesthetics, where Beauty and Geometry (if I may capitalize) were understood to be practically as one.

Proportion is a correspondence among the measures of the members of an entire work, and of the whole to a certain part selected as standard. From this result the principles of symmetry. Without symmetry and proportion there can be no principles in the design of any temple; that is, if there is no precise relation between its members as in the case of those of a well shaped man. -- Vitruvius, The Ten Books of Architecture (III, Ch. 1)

For Vitruvius, the well-shaped man is our familiar Vitruvian man. To some extent, for Polykleitos it was the sort of thing we find in the Doryphoros, whose body is framed out of symmetries and rhythms that are measured and compared; our response to the figure is based - in part - on that chiastic pattern created of these relationships.

And now here comes this Esquiline Venus, or girl, or Queen (possibly Cleopatra?), which I get to see here with the eyes of both Lord Clark and Maillol, that fine 20th century sculptor whose work had been until now more familiar to me than this Greek art. My first female nude sculpture was at the home of my Uncle Henry in Bloomington, Indiana, a fine Maillol which I admired as a kid. Still do, though now I include in my admiration more than plain old wide-eyed lust.

Of course, artists know and learn from the work of other artists; it is not surprising that Maillol would know this piece, and I should have thought of it myself, but now I could see and, I think, feel, something more than, for example, a Rubens drawing of the Hellenistic Belvedere torso had taught me. Even in sculpting from a model, the artist responds to the work of other artists. Duh.
This piece, then, represents the discovery of what Clark calls "the plastic essentials of the female body" and "the architecture of the body." I find I don't respond too well to Clark speaking of an "evolved notion of feminine beauty," but I think he is mostly expressing something about what the Greeks themselves (after Praxiteles, at least) would have felt themselves, and something about the effects of a proportion based on 7:1 (instead of what I remembered was supposed to be the Classical ideal, 8:1).

Maillol maintained that he could find three hundred in the town of Banyuls alone.
I'll bet he could.

I know Banyuls as a French wine I do not drink, probably because it is more than I wish to pay, but also, no doubt, because it is one of those port-like, sweet, fortified wines which if I drink I sometimes wish I hadn't.