Friday, 22 May 2015

I'm Your Venus, I'm Your Fire, Your Desire

Well, here we are on the brink of a nice, sunny bank holiday weekend and so to get us off to a jolly fine start, I thought it might be splendid to have some rampant nudity…

Love's First Lesson Solomon J Solomon
Steady now, there is going to be a lot of that sort of thing in this post.  Today I’m going to talk to you about Venus, Goddess of Love and All The Good Stuff. She crops up quite a bit in art over the ages and the Victorians weren’t immune to her nudey charms.  Well, take this well-known image, for example… 

That’s Venus Verticordia (1865) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, his only nude in oil and a gorgeous representation of the goddess as the turner of men’s hearts (‘verticordia’).  She is the very embodiment of beauty and female persuasiveness, holding her apple and flashing a bit of nipple (which in the real world doesn’t get you as far as you’d think.  Apparently.)  Rossetti also seems to say that the attributes of this goddess are very transient, the gorgeous blooms going to seed before our eyes and the butterflies epitomising the brevity of all life. Possibly she is so wonderful because she represents something so brief yet so utterly glorious – lust, youth, beauty – all gone before we notice. Well, that’s depressing, let’s see some more boobs to cheer ourselves up…

A Venus Albert Moore

This is one of my favourite Venuses as it is basically Action Man from the nipples down.  I’m sure I read a story that Mrs Moore didn’t want her husband looking at lovely ladies bits all day and so made him paint this from a chap.  That is hilarious because surely at some point Moore would have questioned whether women had a six-pack or not.  All in all, she does look like ‘Goddess of Love’ might be her wrestling name… 

The Birth of Venus (1923) Charles Shannon
According to mythology, Venus was born from sea-foam.  Coming from the water, she is seen as the balancing and tempering counterpart of Mars, a very manly God, seen elementally as ‘fire’.  When showing her in art, her birth and the associated sea-side jollity were understandable a popular choice. Shannon’s late piece, resplendent with deep water-tones and the glowing shell-pink torso, is a wonderful example.  Best known is probably this Rococo-esque  pastel explosion…

The Birth of Venus (1863) Alexandre Cabanel
Lawks! And similarly, this one…

The Birth of Venus (1879) William Bouguereau
Both pictures share an atmosphere of light, summery breezes and splashy cherubs.  Rather more people turned up to Bouguereau’s birth (dress optional, obviously) and he imagines her riding the giant clam shell, reminiscent of Botticelli’s vision.

Dear Lord, there is this one too…

The Birth of Venus (1933) George Spencer Watson

A bit out of our time-line, Watson was a very nice Victorian painter who obviously went a bit odd in his later years.  He died the year after this was completed.  Presumably this killed him.

Venus Born of Seafoam (1887) William Stott

Far more delicate is Stott’s fae lassy, toddling out of the sea with her hair swirling.  Looking remarkably like the Little Mermaid taking her first steps on dry land, it’s hard to reconcile this little sea-imp with the goddess of love, lust and fertility.  She is very beautiful however, as is her reflection in the glassy wet sand and I love the dappled foam of the breaking waves behind her.

The Bath of Venus (1895) William Blake Richmond
The study of antiquity and the availability of images from previous centuries informed the pictures in the nineteenth century in some very obvious ways.  Looking at Richmond’s goddess, you are immediately reminded of not only Botticelli, but also statues such as Venus di Milo.  The arms-up-knee-dip pose is a common one for Venus, elongating her body, raising everything perkily upwards, framing the face and freeing the hair.  It’s about display, of inspiring desire in the viewer. When you look at a picture of Venus you are meant to feel what the goddess symbolises.

Laus Veneris Edward Burne Jones
In the legend of Tannhäuser, the eponymous knight discovers the underground home of Venus (the Venusberg).  In the poem ‘Laus Veneris’ (‘In praise of Venus’) Algernon Swinburne told the story of Tannhäuser, and Edward Burne-Jones painting owes a great deal to the description in Swindburne’s work, which equally were inspired by Burne-Jones' watercolour of the same subject. Burne-Jones shows a sad, loney Venus, awaiting someone to love her (for what is the goddess of love without someone to love her?), while the knights outside pause at the sound of the beautiful music played by Venus’ companions. 
In the Venusberg (1901) John Collier
Popularised by Wagner's opera in 1845, Tannhäuser was a knight who spent a year worshiping Venus. Looking at Collier’s picture, it is quite obvious why our errant knight took a nice long time to worship the gorgeous goddess and when, after trying to repent for his saucy wanderings, ended up going back to the Venusberg and was never seen again. I mean, for goodness sake, would you leave?

Venus and Tannhäuser (1896) Lawrence Koe
Looking a bit more repentant in this one...
Poor Venus wasn’t exactly lucky in love.  Often men had to be borrowed from Roman mythology, so that she wouldn’t get lonely in pictures.  There are images of Venus and Adonis, but I really like this picture of Venus and her mortal lover Anchises…

Venus and Anchises (1889) William Blake Richmond
According to the myth, Venus pretended to be a princess and seduced the lucky Anchises for two weeks of sex.  No wonder he needs to lean against a tree. Nine months later she turned up with a baby and told him not to tell anyone of their epic romp or else he would get blasted by a thunderbolt.  I think I saw something similar on Jeremy Kyle…

Also Venus is seen with Mars, her lover and fellow deity…

Mars and Venus (1918) Mabel Layng
I love this modern allegory, with a First World War soldier beside his sweetheart. She has her apples around them and he is in his uniform, possibly on leave. It must have seemed so relevant to wonder at the relationship of love to war in 1918. Mars sits with his back to the viewer, unreachable and solid. Venus touches her heart with one hand and leaves the other hand open for him to take. Maybe Layng was optimistic that Venus’ gentleness would temper her war-bound lover as he is beginning to turn to her.

Venus and Cupid Evelyn de Morgan
One relationship that is ever-present in imagery of Venus is the one with her son, Cupid.  Cupid is a reflection of his mother, he is the mischief that desire causes and often Venus is called upon to correct him…

Venus Spanking Cupid Hans Zatzka
Yes, well, moving on.  I was thinking more in terms of one of my favourite non-Victorian works of art…
An Allegory of Venus and Cupid (1545) Angelo Bronzino
I’ve always loved this picture despite the fact that it is really disturbing, not least because of the bloke screaming in pain on one side and the little snake/lion girl on the other.  Oh and the boob-squeeze too.  Wrong, wrong, wrong. Anyway, often Venus is seen removing or breaking the arrows of love from the hands of her little boy, implying that he does not have the maturity to understand the power of his actions. The use of Cupid in a scene is a way of showing the two sides of love, or how sometimes we mere mortals do not appreciate the importance of love.

The Veiled Venus (1900) Kohne Beveridge and Ella von Wrede

All in all, the repetition of Venus in art through the ages reveals our obsession with love in all its many forms. Love can be wild, sudden, physical, deep and everlasting but it will always be seductive and beautiful. The Veiled Venus above is a fascinating sculpture – the veil over the beautiful face is technically clever and very striking, but does emphasis how much we are not looking at her face, if you excuse the liberty.  Possibly it is a comment on how we mistake lust for love, how people assume they are in love when they are actually lusting after some rather striking curves. Still then, however problematic our relationship with the emotions of love and lust, the truth of Venus is that she can overcome our destructive nature.  Venus is always triumphant in her relationship with Mars, and we will always side with the goddess who would rather kiss you than kill you.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Kirsty
    Thank goodness for the bank holiday weekend in which to lie down in a darkened room in order to recover from all the flesh on display! However, it was fascinating to see all the interpretations of the Goddess of Love. The Watson was very odd indeed...yikes! I did enjoy the Action Man connection with the Moore painting.
    Have a good bank holiday weekend.
    Best wishes


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