Art History as told by a Goddess: Venus through the Ages

Yesterday brought my art course in Cairo to an end. The course, titled ‘Fifty Immortal Masterpieces’ took place over two sessions during which I presented masterpieces of art from as far back in time as Prehistory and all the way to Modern Art.

There are several ways to track the progress of art throughout history (if you consider it to be a progress), and one such way is to see how the representation of one and the same theme has changed over time. Venus is a perfect example.

From the Prehistoric Venus of Willendorf and the Classical Venus of Milo, followed by Botticelli’s Birth of Venus (Renaissance) and all the way to Pistoletto’s Venus of the Rags (Modern Art), the goddess has a lot to tell us about human creativity and its ‘tools’.

First comes Venus of Willendorf, one of several little statuettes representing a female goddess commonly referred to as ‘Venus Figurines’ (even though Venus was not ‘invented’ yet at the time!). A symbol of fertility, Venus of Willendorf shows exaggerated proportions for everything feminine and motherly: swollen pubic area and abdomen, huge breasts ready for feeding the newborn, and a face with no features, proper of a goddess whose face is unlike anything you know.

Then comes Venus of Milo, a masterpiece of Classical Antiquity. Her contapposto position lends her grace, while the contrast between her smooth skin and the drapery of her clothes, all rendered in white marble, adds an erotic quality that is far from exaggerated. Physical and spiritual beauty become one, the material and sensual leads us to the divine imprint.

Third comes the Venus of Botticelli (from his Birth of Venus), a revival of the classical ideals of balance, harmony and proportion, a goddess featured in a fancy realm, born from the sea foam and reaching land on a seashell. Still, her features summarize the aesthetic ideals of Florence in the Quattrocento.

Finally comes the modern Venus of Pistoletto, a perfect metaphor of our time. With her back to us, she is indifferent to the viewer, and seems to be only concerned with the heap of clothes in front of her. The choices are countless and the decision is nothing easy. The viewer can wait all he wants.

Venus through the Ages

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