Goddesses and Girls

Nicholas Penny

‘It’s a speaking likeness.’ For centuries these words carried nothing but praise, but today, if used by the sophisticated, would suggest that some artistic quality was lacking. It is ‘so true and so alive’, wrote Aretino in 1527, in commendation of a nude Venus by Sansovino, ‘that it will fill the thoughts of all who look at it with lust.’ This would now be considered crude and philistine, not only as a reaction to a modern painting or sculpture, but to a Venus by Sansovino. Has high art, in our time, cut itself off from one of its immemorial attractions, leaving to publicity, to the glossy portraits of stars and to centrefold nudes, the task of encouraging the suspension of disbelief and stimulating the fiction that the image responds to us, and hears our proposals and prayers? Or is it that our art-loving ancestors could only convey their enthusiasm for art by making this sort of claim for it?

The Aphrodite of Cnidos, the celebrated statue by Praxiteles, now known only in literary accounts and in poor copies, was said to have been assaulted by an infatuated admirer who concealed himself overnight in her shrine. This story, told without disapproval, as a testimony to the miraculous life the sculpture possessed, was ostensibly suggested by a stain on the statue’s thigh, but was surely also inspired by the action of the goddess. All historians of Greek art have emphasised the novelty of portraying the goddess nude – it was said to have been controversial at the time. A pretext for this nudity was needed and Praxiteles showed the goddess at her bath. This introduced something that was even more remarkable. For the goddess has reacted to us in a human way. We have surprised her, and she attempts instinctively to conceal from us her ‘private parts’ – thus, by the way, licensing the use of this euphemism (which is hardly appropriate for the genitals of Greek males). Praxiteles had endowed a cult statue with a narrative dimension which implicated the men – the males, I mean – who beheld it.

Although the early Christians seem to have done their best to destroy them all for ever, there had been so many statues of the nude Venus – hundreds, perhaps thousands of them copied, and still more derived, from Praxiteles’s masterpiece – that a few turned up in the Middle Ages to meet with a very mixed reception. One seems to have caused quite a stir in early 13th-century Rome, but soon disappeared again (doubtless it had distracted too many pilgrims). A century later, one was reported in Siena: it was briefly acclaimed, but then destroyed by public decree – it was buried in Florentine soil to bring bad luck to Siena’s traditional enemy.

By the early 16th century, things had so completely changed that the Pope had a brace of Venuses in his own statue garden in the Vatican; a hundred years later, an antique Venus in the Medici collection had become one of the two or three most famous works of art in the world. The Medici Venus was admired, as the Cnidian statue had been, in alarming ways. The bibliophile Henry George Quin, for instance, records in his diary (extracts of which were published in an amusing article by Arthur Rau in the Book Collector in 1964) how, in the winter of 1785, he ‘stole’ into the Tribuna of the Uffizi in Florence when no one was there and ‘fervently kissed several parts of her divine body’. When he did so again on his next visit, he ‘began to conceive it was real flesh and blood, and my favours increasing in proportion, I don’t know what I should have done had not my sensual Reverie been interrupted by an ill-looking fellow who came into the room and jawed me terribly’ – not, it seems, for caressing the statue but for standing on a chair. Quin was back in the Uffizi in the following year, slowly passing his hand in a doe-skin glove over the statue, with his eyes closed, and trying (I cannot imagine how) a silk stocking on one of its legs. This sort of behaviour was unusual, but claims that the statue ‘wants nothing but voice and colour’ were common, and so was some sort of ‘sensual Reverie’. As with the Cnidian statue, it was the modest posture of the Venus – ‘she bows down gently, and advances her right knee, as it were to hide herself better if she could’ – which seems to have made violation of her privacy so exciting.

In paintings of the female nude which became popular at the time when Venus began to be venerated in the Vatican, the modest gesture is commonly found: for instance, in Giorgione’s ‘Dresden Venus’ who reclines in a landscape, or in Titian’s so-called ‘Venus of Urbino’ – though she inhabits a 16th-century bedroom and confronts the beholder far more boldly. Charles Hope, in his remarkable monograph on Titian, like Michael Jacobs in a brisk and entertaining polemic on the nude in painting, rejects the idea that this is a painting of Venus.[1] It represents simply ‘a mortal female lying on a bed’, as Hope puts it, ‘gazing at us with a startlingly direct and unambiguous sexual invitation’. Hope has been rebuked for saying this – for example, by Thomas Puttfarken in the present journal (Vol. 3, No 6).

The great nudes of modern art – women transformed by Henry Moore into stones and bones, by Picasso into erotic hieroglyphics, and by Matisse into lyrical calligraphy – are not only far less naturalistic than is Titian’s ‘Venus of Urbino’ but never gaze at us in this way. Nor would we expect this from the nudes in anthologies of ‘art photography’ compiled over the last half-century: the woman in the dunes does not look at us, whilst the part of the woman resembling the dunes cannot look at us. In fact, as Paul Delany has pointed out (LRB, Vol. 3, No 9), the ‘art nude has typically obscured the model’s face’. In pornographic and glamour photography, on the other hand, women yield, entice, invite, assess – pouting, purring, sighing, winking. Hope’s account of Titian’s painting is upsetting chiefly because it may be taken to suggest an affinity between a painting by an old master and such vulgar imagery.

Hope’s account is also upsetting, however, because many art-historians prefer art not to be too easy to enjoy or to understand. Works of art which move us profoundly must, they feel, have some elevating, and preferably learned, content. The ‘Venus of Urbino’, for instance, has been made out to be an allegory of marital fidelity. Even odder claims have been made for Titian’s paintings of a reclining nude woman being looked at by a musician (the finest version is in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge). For Hope they ‘simply show a man attempting to win the favours of a woman through the power of music’. Titian might have hoped that we would imagine we could both hear the music and see in the woman’s face how her mind is ravished by it. But it has seriously been proposed that the picture illustrates a theoretical debate about the different senses, with the musician cast as a lab rat uncertain whether to listen or to look.

Hope is to be congratulated not only for pointing out that some goddesses are simply girls, but for insisting that some narratives are simply narratives. Renaissance artists did often delight in riddles, and sometimes perhaps in arcane mysteries, but the impressive detective work of scholars such as Edgar Wind which has been so extensively imitated is now recognised as often inappropriate. It helps to read Ovid (Titian himself seems to have used translations), but there is no need to read Hermes Trismegistus in order to understand Titian’s great mythological narratives, or to appreciate their dramatic power: the yearning looks of the young lovers in the Bacchanal of the Andrians contrasted with the comedy of the infant boy’s solemn pride in his own urine; the silence of the terrible encounter, in the Diana and Actaeon, between the stunned hunter and the indignant goddess – a silence enhanced by their dogs barking at each other across the pool; the red drapery deployed to deepen, in Hazlitt’s phrase, ‘the solemn azure of the sky’.

The same surely applies to the famous painting by Rubens in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich of two men cheerfully lifting up onto their steeds a pair of struggling naked girls – whether or not it represents Castor and Pollux with the daughters of Leucippus (as is usually supposed) or some other subject. Yet Kerry Downes, in a recent (and for the most part admirable) introduction to Rubens, informs us that the artist knew that in late Antiquity ‘this particular abduction symbolised angels carrying souls to heaven.’[2] Had this theory been current in the 17th century, Rubens would have known of it, but I don’t think it was, and even if he did know of it, why should we assume he wished to comply with it? Can the painting really, as Downes proposes, following a learned article by Svetlana Alpers, possess a ‘philosophical and Christian significance’? Are we to suppose that he was devising a highly sophisticated test for the pious, akin to decorating a prayer-book with erotica? Both Downes and Alpers try to reconcile the ‘surface’ meaning of the painting with other, higher meanings. Alpers declares that the girls are not being abducted but ‘elevated and displayed’, and Downes believes that the raised woman who stretches out her arms and turns her face to the sky, imploring divine assistance, is ‘welcoming her rescuer’.

This sort of interpretation is already passing from fashion. A more modish way of ‘reading’ pictures is represented by Liam Hudson’s Bodies of Knowledge.[3] For him the ‘status’ of the garden in Titian’s Woman with a Musician is ‘equivocal’. There are three ‘layers of illusion’ – the space of this garden, the space shared by the woman and the musician, and the space shared by us and the woman. ‘As you grow used to them,’ he says, ‘Titian’s three spaces come to seem like three systems of self locked within a single head, almost as if they were the three faces of Eve.’ But the decoding has only just begun. A page later: ‘Catching your breath, you realise that Titian is making you think – much as you might be forced to think about the implications of a new theory in molecular biology or physics.’ A couple of pages further on he has found some ‘structural oppositions each reminiscent of those unearthed by anthropologists like Lévi-Strauss.’ And there is a diagram.

Not everything in this ragbag of reflections on sex and art is so ridiculous. Hudson points out that one of Harri Peccinotti’s photographic assemblages for the 1969 Pirelli calendar, consisting of six apparently random snaps of the more salient areas of a woman on the beach, reflects the way that ‘in the realm of the erotic, the “other” is not a whole person at all.’ Peccinotti may well wish to make us think about how men cut women up before consuming them (he may also be encouraging the process). These claims for the complexity of his art may detain radical feminists from ripping Peccinotti’s pictures up: I doubt whether many of them will be fooled by talk of molecular biology into supposing that Titian’s painting is about anything other than the power of music, of love, of man – over woman.

Feminism has prompted exhaustive investigations of the reasons (most of them obvious) why there have been relatively few women artists, and has also prompted the ‘discovery’ of many women artists whose merits, and even existence, male art-historians have, it is alleged, deliberately concealed. More important, it has encouraged some serious thought (and a great deal of grumbling) about how women have been made to act, and how they have not been permitted to act, by male artists for a male public – and these, surely, are terms in which it is useful to examine not only paintings and sculptures of nude goddesses and girls, and of the mythological narratives which involve them, but also portraits of women.

Obviously there have been no female equivalents of the Laocoon or Michelangelo’s ignudi, the nude youths on the Sistine ceiling. There have been many ecstatic female nudes – fast nymphs – but female nudes are rarely permitted to possess strength as well as energy, except when they struggle in the arms of stronger men. Female personifications of strength – Minerva, Britannia, Victory, and the like – are always draped and would seem too vulnerable if nude. Even Delacroix’s Liberty is merely bare-breasted. Only one great European painter has been deeply interested in the dynamic possibilities of the female nude: Degas, who chose as a subject for one of his earliest paintings a wrestling contest between youths of both sexes in ancient Sparta, and who was attracted by the strenuous training of ballerinas, by the hard labours of laundresses, by the acrobat Miss Lala hanging by her teeth. His nudes are bathers who, instead of extending a toe or fingering a towel, twist and turn as they rub and scrub. Their employment, however, is mundane, mechanical and certainly unheroic.

In portraiture too, but in different ways, women are generally less active than men. The change from the immobile profile portrait to the three-quarter view of the face in the Renaissance was, as Malcolm Warner puts it in an elegant essay, ‘largely the achievement of Netherlandish artists in the first half of the 15th century’.[4] The Italians, indeed, despite their love of difficult foreshortening, seem at first to have felt strong inhibitions against taking this step. It’s probable, too, that northern artists were the first to introduce the idea of the sitter looking out of the painting. However, it was in Italy, towards the close of the 15th century, that a sitter was first portrayed as if responding both in expression and in pose to the beholder: a step akin to that which was taken by Praxiteles in his statue of Aphrodite (which, interestingly, was sometimes considered a portrait of the courtesan Phryne) in the mid-fourth century BC.

Of Leonardo’s portrait of Cecilia Gallerani painted in the early 1480s a poet remarked that she seemed to listen but showed no inclination to speak. This sounds like a commonplace, but of what earlier painted portrait could it have been said? It is true, too, obviously, of the Mona Lisa, although (for reasons Warner well describes) exactly how she reacts to what she hears has been variously interpreted. Leonardo’s successors developed this idea of a relationship between the sitter and the beholder. Castiglione, in a Latin sonnet, imagined his portrait by Raphael consoling his wife and children in his absence. His wife will sometimes suppose that his image nods in reply to her questions and even fancy that it is about to talk to her. Over the following centuries the stimulation of this sort of fiction became common in the more intimate type of European portrait. It is the men, however, whose portraits seem on the point of speech.

No woman in a portrait has been as impatient to interrupt as Erasmus Darwin tapping his finger on the table (in the painting by Wright of Derby), or Bertin gripping his knees (in the painting by Ingres). Women, instead, are good listeners, leaning forward, head slightly tilted, one hand playing about the chin or ear, a slight smile hovering about the lips (the attitude is particularly common around 1800). More often than women, men are o dynamically posed, disturbed reading or writing, and turning sharply, sometimes almost ferociously, to confront us. Their discussion with us is also far more informal. In the 18th century they sometimes even lean over the back of a chair. (One woman, Mrs Abington, does this in her portrait by Reynolds, but she is shown not as herself, but as Miss Prue in Love for Love, a gullible country girl unused to polite society.) Men are also much more likely to be merry. I don’t think that there are portraits of ladies who display any of the carefree gaiety of Hals’s Cavaliers (although there are grinning shrimp-girls, of course).

The range of suitable attributes, too, was more limited for female than for male sitters, as is regretted in some ‘Verses occasioned on Reading Montfaucon’ (published in 1755):

Alas! regardless of their better Part,
The busy, thoughtful Head, the tender Heart,
All the fair Hands of Britain must display
A Rose, a Fan, a Lap-dog, or a Play.

In Continental portraiture women are more likely to be holding a prayer-book than a play. The poet also neglects to mention embroidery. But his criticism is fair enough. He contrasts what he sees in British painting with the ‘wise and well-judged symbols’ – ‘nuptial torch, patera, urn’ – to be seen in the portraits of Roman ladies in Montfaucon’s great anthology of ancient art. Reynolds was soon to take the hint and to disguise his English ladies as Romans and give them this sort of solemn employment. But of course they are not ‘themselves’. And disguise in painting, at least after 1600, is more common for ladies than for men. For every nobleman pretending to be a Turk in the late 17th century there must be a dozen noblewomen dressed as shepherdesses. And in the late 18th century when ladies are painted feeding hens and playing with spinning wheels their husbands are not portrayed as blacksmiths.

‘The old masters’, observed the sculptor John Gibson, ‘represented men thinking, and women tranquil – the Greeks the same.’ Certainly it is true that very few women frown in portraits – frowning being the most obvious way of representing thought – but then even today young ladies are constantly warned against frowning. It isn’t attractive. And being attractive has of course, been considered far more important for women than for men. Most male portrait busts are of unlovely middle-aged sitters: most female portrait busts are of beautiful young ones. And portraits – both painted and carved – of the latter are far more likely to be unidentifed. Also, as I have said, women are more likely not to be painted as themselves but dressed up. The borderline between portraits of women and ‘fancy pictures’ is often not at all clear.

Unidentified female beauties, undressed or dressed up, in Italian Renaissance painting are often clearly not ‘ladies’. Those painted by Palma Vecchio in Venice offer us flowers and take their clothes off. Titian’s Flora seems to belong to this tradition (although high-minded art-historians have sometimes seen her as a bride) and later there are Caravaggio’s homosexual contributions: notably, his boy dressed up as Bacchus, offering us a drink and simultaneously undressing, or at least insinuating a finger into a knot. These paintings should probably not be thought of as portraits, even if the artists used individual courtesans as models. The so-called ‘Venus of Urbino’, although larger, should be included here, but she is unusual for the startling directness of her gaze. How welcome this is after the more or less futile, and often feigned, pudicity of marble Venuses and the respectable rigidity or yielding passivity of so many portraits. And how regrettable that its impact – its erotic impact – has been diminished by modern pornography. The fact is that the way we understand (and misunderstand) the art of the past is affected far more by modern art, high and low, than by art history.

[1] Titian by Charles Hope. Jupiter, 240 pp., £12.50, 26 June 1980, 0 906379 09 1. Nude Painting by Michael Jacobs. Phaidon, 79 pp., £2.95, 1979, 0 71448 19190.

[2] Rubens by Kerry Downes. Jupiter, 208 pp., £12.50, 26 June 1980, 0 906379 04 0.

[3] Bodies of Knowledge by Liam Hudson. Weidenfeld, 163 pp., £12.95, 14 October, 0 297 78117 0.

[4] Portrait Painting by Malcolm Warner. Phaidon, 80 pp., £2.95, 1979, 0 7148 1922 0.