Monday, June 16, 2014

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


We had spent a whole morning in the few rooms of the Louvre that display French paintings of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. David, Gericault, Gros, Delacroix, Ingres. We were determined not to be the sort of tourists who rush from room to room, trying to “do” the whole of the Louvre in one day and never taking their eyes from their viewfinders. You cannot survey satisfactorily the whole of this vast museum in months, let alone in one day, so our idea was to look at a few things closely rather than turning the Louvre into a blur of impressions.
But after lunch in the museum’s café, we decided we would look at two tourist magnets – the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo.
Pardon me if I do not linger on how underwhelmed I have always been by the Italian portrait. Granted, you can speculate on why La Giaconde is smiling, or indeed whether she is smiling at all, and there is great artistic skill in creating such ambiguity. But I am tired of her. She has been so iconised, parodied, used as an image on tea-towels, postcards, advertisements, posters and so forth that it now is impossible to look at her on her own merits. And I never did think she was attractive anyway.
“Oh yes – her!” I said, as I peered at the postage-stamp sized canvas behind the bullet-proof glass in the huge gallery where she hangs. Let us admit that any appreciation of this painting is minimised by the hordes of tourists over whose heads and shoulders you have to look, and who always jostle about the painting in their hundreds because, from Baedeker to Lonely Planet, Mona Lisa is the most publicised and hyped exhibit in the palace. Let us also admit that she is probably a great painting, but there is no way of telling that any longer because she can now be seen only through the haze of received opinion. I found myself rapidly turning away from her and taking more interest in Paul Veronese’s huge canvas of the wedding feast at Cana, which faces her from the opposite wall.
But my visit to the Venus de Milo, down in the rooms devoted to classical statuary, was something else.
For one thing, the Aphrodite of Milos was in a less crowded gallery than the Italian lady. For another thing, she stood high on her pedestal. You could wander around her unmolested, spend time with her, take photographs of her from many angles, get clear views of her without having to worry about some other visitor’s head getting in the way, and generally be intimate with her.
True, she has been iconised almost as much as the Mona Lisa. Inappropriate pop-cultural references popped into my mind (they always do) as I looked at her. I thought of the witty 1920s publicity shot of Buster Keaton pretending to be the Venus de Milo. My stupid brain started playing bits from the antique pop-song “Love is Just Around the Corner” (“Venus de Milo / Was well know for her charms / But you’re much better than Venus / and what’s more you’ve got arms!”). I told my stupid brain to desist and I was thankful for the enlightened policy of the Louvre, which (unlike most art galleries; unlike the National Gallery in London or the Vincent van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam) allows tourists to take as many photos of the art works as they wish, so long as flashes aren’t used.
I also thought that even if this lady has been iconised, it is not in quite the same way as the Mona Lisa. After all, Venus is a three-dimensional work and can be seen from many angles, so there is no one image of her that has been done to death.
So I spent time with a 2,200-year-old statue. I walked around her slowly a number of times. I photographed her from many angles. I felt as moved by her as the peasant who dug her up in 1820 must have felt. And I tried to work out why I was moved. Surely it wasn’t simply because this is such a famous statue and one feels obliged to admire such certified High Culture? No. There was something about the very shape of her that was exciting.
Consider the fortuitous lack of arms. Just as ruins provide free play for the imagination, allowing us to fill in the gaps of what is not there, so does the Venus de Milo’s lack of arms. We can speculate (as many have done) on how her arms were originally posed before the statue was broken by time. I know the tales that say she was once leaning against a pillar, and in her right hand she held an apple – thus being Venus caught at the moment when Paris made his judgement between the goddesses. But any such imaginative reconstruction tends to diminish her. I follow my artistic daughter-in-law’s intuition about ruins – that they enhance aesthetic appeal by simplifying the lines of construction. Having no arms, the Venus de Milo allows us to admire more her uprightness, her verticality. If, by some very unlikely chance, her arms were to be rediscovered one day and properly attached to her, I would be sorry. Her armlessness allows us to admire more fully her sides and her torso and her oddly immature and undeveloped breasts. Arms would get in the way.
The damage done to her right shoulder worries me, and is as brutal as the holes where her arms once fitted. Not all the work of time has enhanced her.
Looking at my photographs of the Venus de Milo, my doctor-of-medicine daughter tells me that Venus’s stomach muscles are structured like those of a young man rather than those of a young woman. I would not have been able to make this judgment myself, but I do detect an odd androgyny about parts of Venus – the small breasts, the stern and almost masculine face despite the hair’s being arranged in classical Greek female style. Even Wikipedia tells us that Auguste Renoir, who liked to portray buxom, fleshy, almost Rubens-esque women, was deeply unimpressed by the upright, small-breasted and stern Venus de Milo and dismissed her as “a big gendarme”.
I suppose I can see his point, but surely a goddess, with powers of life and death over mere human beings, has the right to look stern?
Besides, where her femininity is concerned, I was reassured as I walked around her by the sight of her ample, potentially child-bearing bum. But some doubt did creep in. Is it really as big as a really good child-bearing bum? Maybe, as women go, it is a little on the small side…
But there is another element of the Venus de Milo that makes her speak. It is purely erotic. Please note that the statue freezes her in mid-movement. Her left knee is advanced. Clearly she is trying to keep up the drapery that covers her pudenda and legs. I am aware that Hellenistic statuary routinely covered pudenda in drapery like this. Even so, as any striptease artist knows, the moment that most excites male gazers is the moment before full nakedness is revealed. Remove all drapery and much of the excitement vanishes. Climax has been reached and passed. Venus de Milo is promising the (male) viewer her naked body. She is caught at the moment of making this offer, before her full nakedness is revealed. If she were nude, if the drapery had fallen from her pudenda, she would not be as exciting.
So I am caught by her simplicity and her uprightness and her odd androgyny and her bum and her frankly erotic appeal. This is a lot for a cold piece of marble, thousands of years old, to convey. But Venus de Milo conveys all this.
Where she lives, there are other goddesses whose conversational company I would probably enjoy more, and who are probably more intelligent than Venus. Indeed, there are other goddesses with whom I feel more kinship.
Artemis (Diana) the huntress, only a few metres away from Venus, is a much more practical woman, caught in mid-stride, poised to shoot off another arrow in the chase, and showing, by the position of her left hand, her power over animals. Her beautiful nipples strain against the cloth of her maidenish garb. She is a hockey-captain, a runner, the pride of the school sports day. In her split-second pose, the full muscles on her tensed right arm show that she is not to be messed with. She is quite wonderful.
Also in the gallery, the serene, tall, stately Athene (Minerva) and her wisdom, and her helmet of authority and her upraised admonitory right arm, and her downright expository left arm, would move me more if her lips and eyes were not discoloured in such a way as to make her grotesque and somewhat scary when her face is seen close up. But her stance is dignified and commanding and I am sure she would have many interesting things to tell me.
I would happily applaud Artemis as she won a race. I would enjoy a long coffee break while listening to Athene set the world to rights. But Venus is the only one I would want to sleep with, and somehow that must be part of her value as a work of art.

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