Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Venus Genetrix

The Venus Genetrix, Roman copy of 5th century original

How hard, or soft, is marble?

The Venus Genetrix is the name given by Julius Caesar to the god he presumed was his ancestor, Venus, who is, of course, the Roman version of Aphrodite. It is probably not the correct name to use for the fifth century sculpture - presumably from the school of Pheidias - of which this is a Roman copy.

Lord Clark points out that while the beauty of the Nike reaching for her sandal - which might be a work of the same artist as here - is incidental, beauty means everything to this sculpture.

Perhaps this was the first Aphrodite, in the sense that the beauty that arouses physical passion was celebrated and given a religious status. ...the subtlest rhythms of the female body are noted with an eager delicacy unsurpassed by Correggio or Clodion. The folds of her drapery flow round the body, but are drawn tight over the breasts and belly, so that the modeling, traversed by one vagrant line, makes its full effect” (Clark, 123).

We have seen these lines before, in the Parthenon pediments, on the parapet of the Temple to Athene Nike, and elsewhere. Here is the quintessence of the rendering of illusionary transparency, where raised ridges substitute for the normally incised channels of the modeling line by which the underlying anatomy of the voluptuous female form is created, revealed, and concealed, by the apparent presence of diaphanous drapery. These lines race around and over the body making elegant filigrees that seem to swoop and swirl with intent.

The discovery of the female nude makes us think. Greek artists have been at work exploring dimensions of human consciousness. They sculpt a number of basic subjects - myths and legends of gods and heroes, athletes and athletic prowess, military victories, offerings to the gods, commemorations of the dead and dying. From the Archaic period (starting around the 8th century BCE) the pieces are highly patterned, and in the next couple of centuries show increasing interest in anatomical details - principally in the male nude kouroi figures. By the Classical era artists are creating figures who seem to come alive, who have a spring in their step, or at least an engaging and rhythmically dynamic stance, so that we notice them more as if they were alive, or intended to represent life, and as if they were moving, or about to move.

Our sculptors have also become fascinated with the sometimes intricate patterns of a dress - in the korai figures of clothed females from the Archaic period - and also in the patterns fabric makes when it drapes the body of a woman reclining, or reaching for her ankle. The anatomy here is modeled not as such but as it becomes revealed. By sculpting clothing in this way, artists find ways to represent qualities of lightness and transparency - the very opposite of the marble or bronze they employ - and to evoke both sensual and temporal feelings in the viewer. These are not just spatial works, but temporal.

I read somewhere - where? Diane Ackerman, perhaps? - that the sense of sight can be thought of as an extension of the sense of touch; we extend our sense of touch spatially, and this doubling up of the senses provides confirmation and the kind of assurances we can only receive from our senses. It is in this context that I see figures such as the Flying Nike of Paionios, the Nike Adjusting Her Sandal, the Wounded Niobid, the Esquiline Venus, the Munich statuette, the Venus Genetrix...

The sensory qualities that get enhanced in our experience of a work like this are rendered somewhat more palpable by the aforementioned sense of time passing which a work like this - and so many from the Classical period onwards - conveys, even in the very subtle modulations of light and shadow that recur among the sinuous folds of the garment.