Monday, June 04, 2007

The Aphrodite of Melos (Venus de Milo)

The Aphrodite of Melos (Venus de Milo)

The most celebrated, or at least the best known, statue from antiquity is this superb Aphrodite, found in the early 1820s. She is commonly called the Venus de Milo.

In the first century BCE, Vitruvius defined the three basic elements of architecture, naming them firmitas, meaning it needs the durability to stand up, utilitas, meaning it needs to be useful to people's needs, and venustas, meaning it should be beautiful. Venustas, then, is the Latin word for beauty. It derives from their name for Aphrodite, Venus, and actually means those qualities we associate with the goddess, principally beauty. This statue, perhaps more than any other, has come to stand for beauty in the Ancient world.

Originally, after installing it in the Louvre, the French thought they had a piece of truly Classical art, that is, from the fifth century BCE. Many were disappointed when the base was retrieved, identifying it as Hellenistic. Well, they said, if its only Hellenistic... Phooey!

No matter. It is, in spite of what many feel about Hellenistic art, really great. Don't just take it from me. Rather than prose on about the piece myself, I will simply excerpt three expert opinions:

“...[A] number of late Hellenistic artists began to reinterpret their models in terms of second-century fashion, which preferred a new image of feminine beauty: a tall, high-waisted figure with narrow shoulders and small head but wide-hipped and full-breasted. The most famous example of this type is celebrated under the name Venus de Milo, a Parian marble statue of Aphrodite, 6 feet 8 inches tall, found on Melos and displayed in the Louvre as an object of the greatest visual interest since 1821. It is believed that the statue derived from a fourth-century model which represented the goddess resting her left foot on the helmet of her divine paramour, Ares, while she gazed at her own lovely image reflected in the furnished surface of his shield, which she held in her hands [Venus of Capua]. Although the figure is still and self-absorbed, the composition disturbs her tranquility. The disposition of her limbs and the shadowed folds of her drapery set up contrary rhythms of conflicting axes, while the suspenseful contrast between soft exposed flesh and slipping drapery heightens the emotional impact and sexual potential of the heroically proportioned goddess. In addition, despite the predominant advantage of a three-quarter view which conveys an impression of the body’s mass, there is a flattening of the central torso which tends to draw the eye to the curving silhouette and away from the plastic volume of the figure” (Richard Brilliant, Arts of the Ancient Greeks, 365).

Within a few years of her discovery in 1820, the Aphrodite of Melos had taken the central, impregnable position formerly occupied by the Medici Venus, and even now that she has lost favor with connoisseurs and archeologists, she has held her place in popular imagery as a symbol, or trade-mark, of beauty. ... It remains true that she is fruitful and robust beyond the other nude Aphrodites of antiquity. If the Medici Venus reminds us of a conservatory, the Aphrodite of Melos makes us think of an elm tree in a field of corn. Yet there is a certain irony in this justification through naturalness, for, in fact, she is of all works of antiquity one of the most complex and the most artful. Her author has not only used the inventions of his own time, but has consciously attempted to give the effect of a fifth-century work. Her proportions alone demonstrate this. Whereas in the Venus of Arles and the Venus of Capua the distance between the breasts is considerably less than from breast to navel, in the Aphrodite of Melos the old equality is restored. The planes of her body are so large and calm that at first we do not realize the number of angles through which they pass. In architectural terms, she is a baroque composition with classic effect, which is perhaps exactly why the nineteenth century placed her in the same category of excellence as Handel’s Messiah and Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper (Kenneth Clark, The Nude, 137-8).

Carved from Parian marble in two main pieces (joined at the drapery line) the goddess of love and beauty is presented as taller than human women (6’8”), and as a personification of physical perfection. The less careful working on the left side of the face and torso indicates that the statue was meant to be viewed from a ¾ angle to the right... The body is slightly twisted and the left shoulder raised, with similar contrasting motion conveyed by the outward curve of the right hip and the lifted leg and knee opposite. The torso is carved with careful naturalism and a studied effort to achieve ideal proportions and harmony of line. The total effect is one of refined sensuousness, and enjoyment of bodily beauty; it is firmly kept from being merely sensual, however, for there is no exaggeration or unbalanced emphasis, and the figure’s essential dignity is evident. The goddess’ look is serene and detached. She is aware of her beauty, and rejoices in it, but she maintains an Olympian calm. Here is human beauty sublimated by artistic vision and made an object of esthetic contemplation rather than of sensual appeal. In this it preserves the best traditions of earlier Hellenic art.

The tall body, the relatively small head, and the twisted stance suggest the influence of Lyssipus, but the soft modeling of the flesh is more like Praxiteles’ manner, and the composition as a whole is likely patterned on one of his Aphrodite types. The drapery is not eminently successful. It is rather heavily managed and somewhat artificial, and not well integrated with the figure, having no support except the expedient of the raised knee. (The lost right arm seems to have extended across the body, not holding the garment). Its primary purpose is to set off the smooth flesh by contrast and to provide a sharp division of the statue into equal halves (Schoder, Masterpieces of Greek Art, #68).

Not all appreciate it, of course. The French Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir - who knew a thing or two about art - said it reminded him of some big gendarme. It is, indeed, over life-size. However, it looks like no policeman, or police woman, I have ever seen.

Schoder's point above concerning the distinction between esthetic contemplation and sensual appeal is an important one. I am not sure I can agree, however, that the overall effect of the work is based on the sort of sublimation where aesthetics takes priority over sensuality. From the Ludovisi Throne on, it seems, Greek artists have been able to represent the sensuality of the female body. That they have done so in ways that evoke more than mere sensuality, in ways that we might call aesthetic, does not, in any way I can understand, mean that sensuality is, or must be, somehow less important than the more intellectual - refined - aesthetic qualities. It all depends on the way we come to the work, how we see it, what we see it as, what sort of relationships we find, and that sort of thing. Admittedly, if I see the piece mostly as an attractive woman whose garment is about to fall to around her ankles, anticipating the event and, perhaps getting to know her better as a sexual fantasy, I will be responding more to her sensuous qualities than her aesthetic appeal. She is, after all, certainly about sexuality and sexual appeal, and about the body generally, specifically the body - the female body - as exposed to view. These are not, I think, topics that must be sublimated to aesthetics. (Nor, of course, need aesthetics be sublimated to them.)