Thursday, June 2, 2011

I'm Your Venus

In the beginning, there was the Venus of Willendorf, one of the earliest images of women our ancestors created. She was almost certainly not an image of beauty, but scholars disagree about what she was meant to represent. She could be prehistoric pornography, but more likely is an image of fertility, or a fantasy of what it would be like to live with the kind of abundance early human beings could only dream of. (Just imagine! A buffet of all the mammoth you could eat! We'd be huge!)

Whatever she represented, the longing was widespread. Similar images have been found all over Europe. Sometimes, when women (at least the ones who've taken an art history class or two) complain about the narrowness of female beauty standards, they look to the Venus figurines as proof that once upon a time women's bodies were appreciated -- even worshipped -- for what they really were. Unfortunately, that's not really the case. Willie the Venus is no more realistic a female image than Barbie. No face. No arms. No feet. The only things that count are her fertile bits, and basically, they're all she consists of. Talk about a limited life! Better "barefoot and pregnant" than footless and pregnant.

Surely, though, there have been times in history when art and style could make room for real women? The word "Rubenesque" springs to mind, still used to suggest the beauty of curves. I've never been a connoisseur of Northern European art, but I don't think Peter Paul Rubens, the most important Flemish painter of the Baroque period, ever painted a skinny woman. That's not surprising. He probably rarely encountered a skinny woman, at least one he would have bothered to spend any time looking at. Northern Europe in the 17th century was rich, and if there's anything the rich have always wanted to get out of their money, it's the ability to impress others with their affluence. Baroque churches are big and gaudy, with elaborately ornamented facades, and a heavy hand with the gold. You could view those buildings as telling observers to be in awe of God. But mostly they say: Hey, look at us. We're rich. We're powerful. Beware.

But the Church wasn't the only one with money. A merchant class was growing increasingly rich and powerful, and a chunk of their money went to commissioning art works, both for their homes and for public places, that reflected their interests: above all, themselves -- it was a golden age of portraiture -- and what they owned. They seemed especially proud of the abundance of what they could put on their tables. No wonder Rubens' models were a bit rotund. Plump as the loaves of bread. Round and juicy as the apples.

But at least that meant Rubens saw them as beautiful, right? In a way. But another way to look at it is that they were roughly on a par with the bread on the breakfast table, or the gilded altar -- a way of saying: Look at all I have -- big, fat women; enormous, shiny churches; and more breakfast on the table than an army could consume. Isn't my life grand?

Women are just part of the ornamentation.

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