Humanity has always had one thing in common: under our clothes we are all naked. Throughout the ages artists have drawn, chiseled, shaped, cast, painted, sculpted and in every conceivable way represented the naked human form. The artistic rendering of the nude has changed over the centuries, from the symbolic sculpture of early humanity to the lifelike sculptures of the classical era and from the near photorealism of the Renaissance to the abstractions of artists such as Picasso. A closer look at the the ancient sculptural nudes Kouros, Riace Warrior, and Praxiteles’s Aphrodite of Cnidos and the modern painting Venus by Fernando Botero, will reveal some crucial differences between the views of the ancient world and those of the modern world. Differences include the setting of the nude, the artistic representation of the human body, and what the nude reveals about society’s views on sexuality.
The stiff formality of the ancient nude Kouros, sculpted around 590 BC, contrasts sharply with the stark informality of Botero’s Venus, painted in 1989. Kouros stands stiffly, “fists clenched,” marking or guarding a tomb or temple (Bishop 45), while Venus stands relaxed, her hands loose and busy while she goes about her mundane, everyday tasks. Kouros’s hair is “geometric” and his body rigidly symmetrical (Bishop 45), the epitome of order and ‘correctness.’ Venus, on the other hand, has her pair pulled back in a relaxed, informal manner. Her body is not presented symmetrically as she stands unevenly and is turned somewhat away from the viewer. Clothing drapes out of an open bureau drawer and her bed is not made. She is, in contrast to Kouros, not especially orderly. Kouros, whose creation served a very formal purpose, is presented very formally – his hair orderly, his body straight and symmetrical – whereas Venus, whose creation serves no higher purpose than the pleasure of the artist and the viewer, is presented in a ‘slice of life’ manner – relaxedly preparing for the day ahead.
Turning our eyes to the Riace Warrior of mid-5th century BC (photo on page 55 of Bishop), and comparing it to Botero’s Venus, we see how the artist’s representation of the human body reveals something about how they (and by association their society) view the human body. Riace Warrior is lean, his muscular body well defined and apparently, ready for action. In contrast, Venus is round and soft, her muscles buried under ample flesh. Her shape is over exaggerated so much so that she would not fit on the bed pictured in the background. The Riace Warrior is perfectly crafted, from the curls of his head to the toenails on his feet. Whereas every curl is defined on Riace Warrior, Venus’s hair is fuzzy and unclear. Her hands, and the rest of her for that matter, are free of wrinkles and lines, creating a much softer, laid-back quality to the art. Though now missing, the Riace Warrior was equipped with a sword and shield, the weapons of a warrior. It is clear that a warrior’s body – strong, capable, ready – was very important to society at the time Riace Warrior was cast. So important, in fact, that the sculptor saw fit to equip this warrior with sword and shield but not armor. Botero, on the other hand, said he wanted to “create sensuousness through form” (Faerna) and he does so. However, in doing so, he reveals that society no longer needs a utilitarian reason to honor the body. The human body is now seen to be for pleasure above purpose, alluding perhaps to an increase in hedonism. By recognizing these differences, we can see that the warrior ethos of 5th century BC has given way, perhaps, to the hedonistic pleasures of the modern era.
Differing levels of hedonism may explain some of the differences between Praxiteles’s Aphrodite (sculpted around 350-340 BC) and Venus and what they reveal about society’s views of sexuality and the ‘place’ of sex in society. Looking first at Aphrodite, she stands, legs crossed slightly, her hand covering her groin. She has just removed her robe as she prepares for her bath (wikipedia.com). Venus, on the other hand, stands with one leg brought forward and her arms over her shoulders, making no effort to hid her groin. She is nude, not because she is getting dressed or undressed, preparing for a bath or some such task requiring a state of undress. She is nude, apparently, for the sheer pleasure in being nude. Aphrodite’s hair, which it is believed would originally have been gilded (Bishop 54) is pulled neatly away from her face and coiled at the base of her neck, suggesting a certain amount of reserve. Venus, on the other hand, sports full bangs and unrestrained hair cascades down her back, suggesting an increase in personal freedom. Aphrodite’s gaze captures a hint of the demure and the diffident. She is nude, save for the arm band and jewelry she may have been adorned with originally (Bishop 54), not for sake of pleasure but of necessity. It would indicate a certain hesitancy to fully expose oneself, a feeling of reserve in regard to sexuality. She does not stand as proud and unselfconscious as the male nudes of the same time frame. Venus is unadorned, save for a simple hair ribbon and a pair of shoes, yet her nudity seems much more natural and comfortable, suggesting a more open attitude towards sexuality. Venus’s lack of shame or demurral appearance would also suggest a more equitable sexual relationship between male and female. Both pieces of art center around a nude female and yet are wildly different because the worlds they sprang from are wildly different. While all of a society’s views can not be seen in two snapshots of life such as these two pieces provide, by comparing them, we can see some broad differences in how sexuality is viewed.
Perhaps no amount of study will ever reveal all the differences between the ancient cultures and more modern cultures but the art that a society produces does bring some revelation. From the stylized and simplified Kouros to the strong and sturdy Riace Warrior, from the demure and diffident Aphrodite to the supple sensuousness of Venus, we see that what artists produce is, at least in part, due to how society views the object that is the subject of their art.
Bishop, Phillip E. Adventures in the Human Spirit. 6th Ed. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2011.
Faerna, Jose Maria. “Fernando Botero: The Praise of Opulance.” 9 Sept. 2010 <http://www.all-art.org/art_20th_century/botero2.html>.
Wikipedia. “Aphrodite of Cnidus.” 9 September, 2010 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aphrodite_of_Cnidus>.