Ancient art and modern eroticism
by Sally Hardin, guest writer; illustrations by Lily Turner, staff artist
When you read beauty magazines or even discuss modern standards of feminine beauty with friends, ancient Greek statues don’t often pop up in the conversation. But what if those very statues started it all? What if their marble curves gave birth to the physique that we now find sexually appealing? At Colorado College, we hold ourselves to a high standard of physical fitness; notions of beauty here often promote a basic ideal of athleticism and lean fitness. This is largely because CC is a physically active community, but what if there’s more to it than that? What if we’re programmed to see sexual attractiveness partially through the eyes of the Greeks?
Said the physicist Venturi, “The only way to understand old art is to make it participate in our own artistic life.” Not shockingly, sex is a major part of contemporary artistic life, just as it was for the Greeks. Our conceptualization of sexuality is based largely on what came before us, be it the precedents set by our older siblings or a throwback to the standards of the Ancient Greeks.
The female nude has long contributed to the culture of Western art, beginning with the Greek Venus de Milo statue. Original models of beauty can be traced back to this same Venus de Milo from 100 B.C. This armless pre-bath beauty is thought by many to be the mother of many Western notions of erotic attractiveness. Her languid gaze drifts into the distance, relaxed, while her robes slip tauntingly down around her hips, exposing her naked chest and curvaceously toned torso. Today, society might think of Venus as a little too stocky in the pelvic region, an indicator of a shift in our beauty standards. Nonetheless, we can appreciate the sensuousness of the way her body is poised, with her head politely tilted to allow the viewer to take in her fuller figure without directly confronting her, as well as the slight sway of her hips, indicating that she poses in order to be observed.
From the Hellenistic period of Ancient Greece through the Renaissance, larger women were considered more beautiful. A lady’s more rounded form signaled that she was capable of bearing (many) healthy children, important in a time when successful childbirth was far from guaranteed. Furthermore, plumpness indicated that the woman was well-fed, a sign of prosperity. That the Greeks would go as far as to depict their goddesses in such a style shows the prevalence and acceptance of a fuller figure as the ideal of gorgeousness.
It wasn’t long before Venus look-a-likes were characterized as the paragon of sexiness in ancient art. The Nike of Samothrace (another headless, armless statue symbolizing Victory) is thought today to be an example of female sexual strength, combined with a staunch athleticism (ever wonder where the Nike shoe company got its name?) Her wings stretch out behind her as her body presses forward, as though halting suddenly after being in violent motion. Through her billowing robes, we can see her soft center, curvy but defined. Her reputation for bringing triumph upon her observers didn’t hurt her attractiveness, either.
Such standards continued to build in art, until a return to extreme religiousness called for a complete focus on the world of the spiritual. To acknowledge the life of the physical body was seen as a sin, and nudes disappeared from the art stage for several hundred years. It was only with the Renaissance “rebirth” of culture that nudes again became prevalent and embraced, becoming models for the sexual aspects of humanistic thought.
The painter Botticelli embodied this cultural phenomenon in the creation of his 1486 masterpiece, the Birth of Venus. This naked goddess has emerged from the sea with her body angled towards us, standing in a shell, with a look of ethereal indifference on her face. Her blond locks tumble down her back and lazily frame her figure, which contains many elements from her predecessor, the Venus de Milo. She is beautiful—Shakira of the Renaissance! That a hand covers her chest and her hair flows over her nether regions only serves to heighten the viewer’s excitement; partial concealment never ceases to be deliciously tantalizing. Botticelli’s injection of implicit eroticism into his art strays slightly from Classical standards and may be an indication of the trend toward the more explicitly erotic works of today. But, were this Venus to spring to life and join us in our modern world, she would be considered too full-bodied to be conventionally sexy, a result of her broader hips and rounded stomach.
Ingres drew from Botticelli when he painted the Grande Odalisque (large prostitute) in 1814, altering the standard notion of the female nude, throwing caution to the wind, and upping the eroticism ante by bizarrely elongating her body. The Odalisque’s body faces away from the audience with only her head turned around; a contortion that serves to elevate her eroticism. It evokes our modern fascination with sexual freakishness in the form of kinks and fetishes; we are mildly disgusted by sexual acts that deviate from the norm, yet simultaneously intrigued.
The female nude was again altered during the period of Impressionism, where art had a certain hazy quality to it, combined with an extended emphasis on light. The nudes of this period, including those of Renoir, were less godlike and more realistic, while retaining a certain gossamer quality because of their foggy brushstrokes. And Renoir’s nudes, at least, were quite pudgy, proving that even while the times were changing (females of a leaner frame were increasingly revered in society), art retained historical influences that were still well-received by audiences.
In post-Renoir art, nudes became more confident and exposed, congruent with women in real life gaining increased presence in their societies. Manet’s 1863 nude composition Olympia consists of a reclining prostitute with distinct lines and a gaze that locks straight on her viewer. She is not shy, nor modest; she is a proud nude, overtly sexual, almost pornographic, and she has no shame in presenting herself as such. It seems, in fact, that she gains sexual power from her confidence.
Picasso’s 1907 rendering of a brothel scene, Les Desmoiselles d’Avignon, takes female sexual aggression one step further. Here stand five nude women with physiques composed of a collection of angular shapes, yet still retaining elements of the timeless classical form so often seen in art (including broader hips). They pose in various ways, suggesting that the viewer should study and desire their figures, including arms behind their heads and hips jutting out. But their faces are mask-like and menacing, and stare straight out of the frame, intimidating the audience into potential sexual embarrassment.
The continual return to the classical form, and society’s appreciation of art that represents nudes as such (even with standards of beauty that stray far from this base), suggests how powerful art can be in dictating our own ideals. We are willing to change our own assumptions based on how history has seen beauty, and we may even become slowly infused with older ideals in the process. Many girls feel too big sometimes, but a glance at ancient art can remind us that a rounder shape isn’t a bad thing. And styles, like life, are cyclic; it could be only a matter of time before beauty standards shift back in favor of females of a stockier persuasion (or in a completely different direction; who can predict?). Regardless, we have Venus and her tribe of dashing naked ladies to thank for aspects of our culture’s beauty standard. ∼