19 December 2018

GREEK (NUDE) GODS, AND THE IDEALIZED FORM

Collections Corner | Carly Hall


One of my favourite spaces at the Royal Ontario Museum is the Gallery of Greece. I never get bored of walking through the marble statues, or watching figures chase each other in the scenes depicted on red-figure and black-figure pottery. The Gallery features approximately 1500 artifacts, showcasing the artistry of the Archaic (700-500 BCE), Classical (500-323 BCE), and early Hellenistic (323-31 BCE) periods. However, for this week’s article, I want to focus on one object in the collection: the Torso of Aphrodite.

Torso of Aphrodite. Photo courtesy of Carly Hall.
This sculpture of Aphrodite is a Roman copy of a Greek type during the late 2nd century BCE. The original sculpture, attributed to Praxiteles, was highly popular in the late Hellenistic and Roman periods. Due to its popularity, numerous copies were made, with some variations on the theme. In this example, dated to the 1st – 3rd century CE in Rome, the goddess was depicted adjusting her hair.

Aphrodite is an interesting Goddess. There are two myths associated with her conception. According to Homer, Aphrodite was the daughter of Zeus and the Titaness Dione. Hesiod gives a different account of her birth. When Kronos severed his father Uranus’ genitals off the coast of Cythera, Aphrodite was born from the foam. Despite the different genesis stories of Aphrodite, the Greeks and Romans believed the goddess to be the pinnacle of femininity, and an example of divine beauty which was unattainable for mere mortals (except maybe Helen of Sparta/Troy). As I was looking at this sculpture, I overheard a conversation about the inherently damaging idealism and sexualization of the sculpture, and in the art world in general.


A part of me can certainly get behind this. Depending on one’s social standing, ancient women faced a multitude of injustices, and certainly did not enjoy the social liberties women have now. And the emergence of female nudity over the centuries has sparked contemporary discussions on patriarchal sexism and the male gaze in Western art. In fact, Praxiteles was one of the first Greek sculptors to present female nudity, and his bold innovations changed the course of the aesthetics of beauty. However, I think to fully understand the Torso of Aphrodite (and the Greek nude in general), we need to understand the context of Greek and Hellenistic sculpture.

To say Aphrodite represents idealism and sexuality is absolutely correct, by simple virtue of the goddess’ very nature. The Greek Pantheon represents the pinnacle of absolute beauty, because they are all immortal. They have no mortal equal, and their beauty was said to be so devastatingly glorious it could blind mortals who dared to look upon them. As the goddess of love, and feminine beauty (among other things), it makes sense that the goddess is depicted as an idealized nude. Typically, Greek deities are recognizable by their conventional attributes; for example, Poseidon has his trident, and Artemis has her bow and arrows—maybe even a deer or hunting dog by her feet. Aphrodite has her unmatched beauty, and many sculptors capture this through a deified presentation of the female form, be it fully or partially nude. The Venus de Milo, for example, depicts a partially clothed Aphrodite, with an elongated and athletic physique.

Venus de Milo. Source.
One of the things I learned about the Ancient Greeks during my Classics undergrad was that they were obsessed with the idea of beauty, both aesthetically and philosophically. It wasn’t only the female form the ancients were captivated with; many male gods and heroes are also shown in the nude. Take the Artemision Zeus or Poseidon for example. Here the god is shown in all his idealized glory. The statue captures the moment of throwing a lightning bolt or trident, muscles braced to demonstrate the favourable aesthetics of an athletic form (notice a similarity in the torso of the Venus de Milo?).

Artemision Zeus or Poseidon. Source.
In a philosophical sense, ancient sculptors would have depicted gods/goddess and heroes as idealized nudes to demonstrate their celestial, superlative nature. It was in praise not only of their divinity, but also for the potential greatness of the human form. Personally, when I see a nude sculpture of a Greek/Roman deity, I think about the divinity and representation of that god/goddess. I think about where the sculpture would have been housed, whether it be a villa owned by a member of the aristocracy, or a temple dedicated to a specific deity. The way I view Torso of Aphrodite is totally different from how I perceive Rodin’s study of a nude female figure. Perhaps I’m being a little idealist myself, distancing female nudity in Ancient Greece and Rome from nudity in the overarching art world.

What do you think about artistic nudity?

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