Saturday, June 02, 2007

The Venus Kallypygos and the Three Graces

The Venus Kallipygos
The Three Graces

Hellenistic art was for long considered..., well, if not degenerate and trite, perhaps prurient and superficial. The significant difference between this style and styles from the Classical period seems to be that now a far less rigorously geometric aesthetic applies. Out with any canon of proportions and abstract harmonies - which somehow put us in tune with the underlying pattern of the universe - and in with shapely bottoms.

It does seem a bit odd that we are asked to consider a beautiful woman admiring her butt. In fact, I am persuaded by the interpretation that both of these pieces represent dance steps. However, there is no denying that the Venus Kallipygos does have a beautiful ass, and that, in fact, is what kallipygos, or callipygos, means in Greek. The story was told of a couple of sisters arguing over whose was best, and a couple of brothers, each of whom selects the other, and they end up getting married, blah blah blah. Stupid story.

The dance step interpretation makes sense to me, in part because of the overwhelming importance of dance to Greek culture, and because there had always been, I gather, a sense of the beautiful relationship between dancing and sculpture. That is, sculptors who sought to represent the body in motion had in mind the particular steps a dancer would take because assuming such a pose would imply to the audience, all of whom were familiar with the dance, the next step. If one such pose had a beautiful woman turning to the back, and the sculpture then apparently represented her admiring herself from the rear, the pose would have caught on as a sculptural motif for those Hellenistic prurient reasons mentioned above. It is not a great work, but it is certainly a popular one.

Even more popular, and by far better achieved, is the design of the Three Graces. Again, this may have originated as a dance step, but with three women - each deriving from the Praxitelean Knidia - in line it became associated with those goddesses known as the charites, representing Aglaia (beauty, radiance), Euphrosyne (joy, mirth), and thalia (fruitfulness), all associated with Aphrodite.

The three Graces had formerly, apparently, been portrayed as clothed; somebody at some point in the Hellenistic period had the bright idea of disrobing them. They are a common motif in Western art and can be found in first century (CE) Pompeii, and in Renaissance paintings of Sandro Botticelli (Primavera) and Raphael (The Three Graces); Rubens' version is from the 17th Century.

Lord Clark calls the Three Graces "one of the last beautiful inventions of antique art." The harmonious rhythms created by the lines are very much like those created by dance.