EYE OF THE BEHOLDER: VENUS OF WILLENDORF TO VENUS DE MILO
BY CAROLYN BRISSE T
With awe, wonder and worship, fascination with the female body has flourished since the dawn of time – particularly the three Bs: buttocks, breasts and bellies. These pulsing symbols of fertility and prosperity have inspired artists across the world for countless millennia.
One of the earliest (and most famous) examples is the Willendorf Venus, whose lush flesh outcurves even a Rubens beauty. A goddess? A hunting charm? A fertility token? We will never know…
As Paleolithic mists thinned, non-utilitarian art bloomed in Stone Age caves throughout northern Europe, Africa, and the Americas. In these primitive settlements, artists crafted obese (or pregnant?) statuettes from soft stone, bone, ivory, wood and clay. Diverse in location but incredibly similar in size and shape, these tiny Venus Figurines still today convey the primal power of the female mystique. However, the two earliest known representations of the human form – the Venus of Berekhat Ram and
the Venus of Tan-Tan – are barely recognizable as women. Predating even the Neanderthals, their purposes and origins remain shadowy, as anatomically modern humans (and their three Bs!) were still evolving from homo erectus when they were crafted between 200,000 and 700,000 years ago.
Possibly reflecting more secure food supplies (ushered in by the rise of irrigation and agriculture), these voluptuous fertility figures slimmed down steadily through the millennia. Carved some 3000 years before Christ, the folded-arm figurines of
the resource-rich Cyclades are still chubby, with prominent breasts and buttocks. Lacking facial features and hair, they remain emblematic rather than representational.
But by 1600 BCE, artists were portraying women in all their primped-up glory, with the elaborate dresses and ringlets of the Minoan Ladies in Blue fresco denoting their status. Divinities perhaps? Courtiers? Or courtesans? It matters not, as their gaiety epitomizes a lost civilization. Despite Evans’ much-questioned ‘restoration’ of Knossos, there can be no doubt that breasts were outstripping bellies and buttocks, in terms of Bronze Age pictorial preferences.
Buried a thousand years before the birth of Christ, Egypt’s Queen Nefertiti stunned Egyptologists by rocking model-sharp cheekbones and fleek eyebrows. During the next few centuries, this slimmer-is-better trend continued, culminating in Etruscan statuettes, elegant ur-flappers foreshadowing the boyish figures of the 1920s.
During the centuries before the birth of Christ, Ancient Greece established the canons that still underpin modern Western society. From democracy to diet, Hellenic ideals are reflected in today’s headlines. In fact, many of today’s popular sports — boxing, wrestling and foot races — date back to the original Olympics and their ideal physiques.
Carved just over 2000 years ago, the Venus de Milo is the embodiment of Ancient Greek beliefs in beauty and health. Larger than life at almost seven feet tall, this Aphrodite is the goddess of love and beauty. In sharp contrast to her shapeless Stone Age predecessors, her uptilted nipples and trim hips are underpinned by a hint of sixpack. During the centuries just before and after the birth of Christ, India’s
ambiguously-gendered Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara carried the values of mercy and forbearance along the Silk Road to China. There (s)he became a goddess: Guanyin, the embodiment of compassion. Often portrayed as a beautiful young woman in voluminous white robes, she is usually shown as shapely but not sexy, formally posed in elaborate headdresses.
Elsewhere in the world, Africa’s Bangwa Queens are ageless charmers, their ample curves linking them to their Stone Age nyanyas. Mercilessly looted during colonial times, widespread outcries are calling for the return of these treasures to their ancestral homes. Might memories of these proto-mothers still live in our limbicbrains, explaining differences in cultural ideals of female beauty? Perhaps the curvaceous
ladies of Lagos are today’s Bangwa Queens. Modestly draped Bollywood stars could be modern Padmapanis.
But among today’s internet celebrities, who could rival the eternal grace of Aphrodite?