Sunday, August 26, 2007

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet


In class today, I spoke about the “Woman from Willendorf” (which has recently been sited in England). While most of the specific history of this artifact is lost to us today, it has been imbued with a new history that is wrapped up in a name. Originally, this small statuette was referred to as the “Venus from Willendorf”.

This object is relatively small (4 3/8 inches) and could have been easily transported by its owner(s). It was discovered in 1908 by archaeologist Josef Szombathy at a site near Willendorf. Today we know that the statuette was not created in the same area in which it was found, but we really know little else about what is now considered one of the best examples of Paleolithic artwork.

Taking a closer look at the figurine, we see that this is not a realistic depiction of a female but rather an abstraction. Shapes are reduced to simple forms such as circles and ovals. Certain parts of her body have been emphasized by their size/roundness. Her face is absent of recognizable facial features, yet we see a repeating pattern that resembles braided or curled hair. Her arms seem to disappear beyond the elbows (or are very small). Her legs taper down to nothing near the ankles; she has very small feet. (This reminds me of today’s Barbie doll proportions!)

Is the “Venus” from Willendorf pregnant? Is she obese? Is she a portrait of a particular Paleolithic woman? Is she a fertility figurine? Is she a goddess? Is she portable pornography? A charm? Did a man or a woman carve her? Is there a problem with using the word “Venus” to title this object?

The “Woman from Willendorf” is not the only piece of Paleolithic sculpture to be uncovered. To date archeologists have found many different female figurines (and a few males) of different shapes a sizes. Here are some examples of other “Venus” figures: The Savignano Venus and Venus de Sireil


But, Venus? What do you think of when you hear the word “Venus”? This name carries with it many associations, the most obvious being a religious connection with the Roman goddess of love (or the Greek Aphrodite). I find Venus to be a problematic title (obviously I’m not the only one, since they changed it) because it refers to the ideal woman; one who has been portrayed throughout the history of art as an icon of sorts. Despite the change in the title of the piece found near Willendorf, the figurines as a group are still referred to as the “Venus figures”. Take a look at these other images of Venus: Capitoline Venus (Capitoline Museum, Rome) and Sandro Botticelli, Birth of Venus, c. 1482


And consider this:
“The name "Venus" had first been used, in a tone of mocking irony, in 1864 by the Marquis Paul de Vibraye who described a headless, armless, footless ivory statuette he discovered at Laugerie-Basse in the Vèzère valley in the Dordogne as a "Vénus impudique" or "immodest Venus".
The Marquis, of course, was playfully reversing the appellation of "Venus pudica" ("modest Venus") that is used to describe a statue type of the Classical Venus which shows, in the Capitoline Venus for example, the goddess attempting to conceal her breasts and pubic area from view. The inference the Marquis makes is that this prehistoric Venus makes no attempt to hide her sexuality.” source

19 comments:

butch said...

i think the idea of the woman being a fertility figure is a good concept. Her face is non existant (for the most part) which could mean that a person in general isnt the focus, it makes me think that the idea it conveys is the major message. The accentuation of the breasts and stomach also would support that.

James A. said...

I have no problem with it being called the "Venus of Willendorf". Although she might not be beautiful to us now in the present day, this is what they might of thought to be beautiful or perfect.
In those times they might not of been aware of what happens to a women when she is pregnant and after she balloons up in weight and gives birth to a child they might of had a sense of great joy and appreciation for the women hence why it could easily be called a venus.

tnap said...

I think the piece is inspiring. If it really was meant to be a "Venus," then it shows that the people of The Stone Age thought of women a LOT differently than we do today. The piece doesn't idealize the female body, it shows a regular woman, like one you might see walking down the street (or the cave in this case). After I looked up some of the other "Venus Figures," I saw that other the women depicted were all different shapes and sizes. I like to think that maybe women weren't forced to meet a certain cet of standards back then. Also, I found a website that has a lot of Art History info, I'm not sure if it's totally legitimate though, maybe you could check it out for me! http://witcombe.sbc.edu/ARTHLinks.html

Kaitlin said...

The fact that the figure is more round makes me think that it could have signified wealth. Maybe it wasn't easy to have an abudance of food in that time-period. The figure represented having the luxury of much food and comfort. It could have acted as a motivation to work harder for food and shelter in general. I think it also could have been some type of good luck charm. I read on the web site below that the seven rows of braids in her hair could be a lucky or special number, which supports it as a symbol of luck.(http://www.thenagain.info
/WebChron//Prehistory/Willendorf.html)

aydin1107 said...

To me it seemed like the artist is overexaggerating certain features to bring them to the viewer's attention, while leaving other characteristics not as detailed. Maybe, the details of the face are not important here, but more the possibility of a fertile woman. And, that "the sculptor included only those parts of the female body needed for the conception and nurture of children." Which at the time could be very true, this could be very important at the time to make strong children, who can hunt and gather food for the tribe. Or it could mean, "that she is to be regarded as an anonymous sexual object rather than a person; it is her physical body and what it represents that is important." The fact that she is either pregnant, or a very important person. To be that large you would have to be someone of great importance within the tribe. These features could possibly represent the features of women of the time, however I could not find any evidence to support this theory.
http://witcombe.sbc.edu/willendorf/willendorfwoman.html

livefish said...

"Venus of Willendorf" would be a suitable title for this piece of art because to some it may be their "Venus" and we shouldn’t knock it because society has made people think that being skinny and skeleton-like is the "perfect" woman. I believe those women were actually held at a higher stature because of the child labor and body formations they had to endure. Maybe they thought that a pregnant woman was beautiful and to not be would actually in fact make men think less of her. In India women are actually considered an honor to be larger because it symbolizes your wealth. Maybe that was also why.
Is there really a perfect woman? I think that each generation, nation, race all have their own ideas of a perfect woman. For examples, the Greeks thought that graceful, smooth, and rather pale women were to be very "valuable". India is rather large women. And in the states it's getting to be or really already has women are to be super skinny and almost look malnourished to me. Just look in all the fashion mags. It's there!

bigbadteacher said...

All great points here in the comments....I have something else I would like you to consider as well...I'm going to drop some names and some "issues" here and I would encourage anyone to check this out:

Marquis de Vibraye was the first one to ever use the term Venus to describe a figurine like this.

Edouard Piette also used the term Venus, but differently than de Vibraye....

Take the position that the term venus did not come to be used out of respect for the prehistoric artwork, classical art, fertility etc. but rather because of Western European racial/racist attitudes of the time period. Think context here. What was going on in terms of colonization/exploration?

This is a distinct possibility...

Are there other digs (hint: Kostienki I) where these same figurines were not referred to as Venus figures, but rather given a number (just like any other dig)?

big bad teacher said...

artperson said:

The venus? This piece is most definitely unusual due to the lack of detail and odd shape of the female figure, but what gives it mystery is that I find myself asking: "Who made this piece? Why did they make it? Who or what does this represent?" That is what make the sculpture that much better. We will never know, but will always wonder. Heres a quote from the web page I was looking at, "She also exhibits, in ways that are at once appealing (to most women, perhaps) and threatening (to most men, perhaps), a physical and sexual self that seems unrestrained, unfettered by cultural taboos and social conventions. She is an image of "natural" femaleness, of uninhibited female power, which "civilization," in the figure of the Classical Venus, later sought to curtail and bring under control. "http://witcombe.sbc.edu/willendorf/willendorfname.htmlThough the call it "the venus" the figure in my opinion is extremely obese and lacking the beauty to be called a piece of fine art.

August 28, 2007 12:56 PM

big bad teacher said...

duranls1 said...

http://duranls1.blogspot.com/ post my blog here lol

August 30, 2007 10:55 PM

VictorVonDoom said...

"The chances are, a Stone Age woman....would not have had the opportunity to get that fat, unless, of course, she had some special status. She evidently did not need to gather, or hunt, but must have been catered to and had her needs met by others."

I really like this paragraph because, as you said in class, people back then did not live to be the ages that we are now and women bring new life back into the society which makes them a very important role in that society.

Naner said...

This piece is very thought provoking. If you look at this as a Venus, it really opens the possibility that beauty is not necessarily what we see in magazines today. The fact that that these figures are of different body type, but similar structure over different places could express that this form could be a goddess of some kind (For some reason that idea appeals to me, the unperfect goddess.) And if that were to be the case, we could see that now our idea of a Venus might be clouded by our own desperate attempt to be perfect and find the "perfect" human form. For all I know this was porn and I am putting way to much thought into this but, I would like to think my assumption is closer to the truth.

exquisitedesign said...

I think that the name "Venus" basically boils down to a cultural definition. When our culture and society looks at the figurine today, most people don't find beauty within the art piece, only because they see a less than perfect representation of a woman's body. Back in prehistoric times, the men of that time probably viewed women as "Venus's". They found beauty in the women that were carrying their child, so they wanted to depict that through figurines. This is a little far fetched, but as we have photographs today to remind us of our loved ones, they may have used these figurines to represent their wives since the women of that time probably didn't live long or died due to complications in pregnancy. Who knows...

Marc said...

"Her arms disappear beyond the elbows. Her legs taper down to nothing near the ankles; she has very small feet."

I would argue you can actually see her whole arms covering her breasts. Though, her arms are small they do appear to come across the top of each breast. This strikes me, because your connections to the other Venus statues show a similar degree of modesty. Her general posture seems that if she were on her back she could be in child birth. This piece may have just been a charm held during such events.

jpayne said...

"The people who made this statue lived in a harsh ice-age environment where features of fatness and fertility would have been highly desirable. In neurological terms, these features amounted to hyper-normal stimuli that activate neuron responses in the brain. So in Paleolithic people terms, the parts that mattered most had to do with successful reproduction - the breasts and pelvic girdle. Therefore, these parts were isolated and amplified by the artist's brain."

http://www.pbs.org/howartmadetheworld/episodes/human/venus/

I agree with most of the other posts about the meaning behind the statue being of a larger build etc. After reading the information above, my idea is supported even more, that back then being of a larger build and having larger breasts was a sign of higher class or rank within the community. Also, I think calling it "Venus of Willendorf" is quite fitting. Although in today's world the "ideal" woman is to be thinner and such, I believe that beauty is not about your appearance but rather from within. We will never really know the real reason behind the creation of such statues, but I like to think of it as a token that could be carried with you to remind you of someone you love. Today we carry photos in our wallets of the people that matter to us and I think that back then, this little statue, although lacking much deatil, would have served the same purpose but with greater meaning.

Anonymous said...

Retro Clide said...
For whatever reason, I really want the Woman from Willendorf to be portable pornography. If the Woman and all the other Venus figures were originally pornographic images, how does that change their status as art? It begs the question, "What is porn?" Perhaps Justice Stewart was right in the Supreme Court's 1964 ruling on pornography when he said, "I know it when I see it." According to the Miller Test, the first step to determining if something is pornographic is to apply the contemporary community's standards to determine if something is of prurient interest.
Of course, there is no way for us to actually know the standards of the communities from which the Vensuses originated; although, if they are actually antiquated porn, it is an interesting commentary on the changes in communities' standards of what is lewd and what is art. According to the Miller Test, the images depicted in the Venus images aren’t contrary to the standards of what would be deemed acceptable.
In the end, though, I can't help but think it would be terribly funny that these artifacts could very well be something as inartistic as porn. Of course, the long and short of it—no pun intended—is that we will probably never really know what the Venuses are. Regardless of what they were supposed to be originally, they have become art. If nothing else, they give an insight to our ancestor’s abilities to think creatively and to create mechanically.

skiye said...

I find the name of this art piece very contradictory as many people think of Venus as a beautiful goddess of love and to our standards and the standards of yester-years this is not quite what they are set to. Many artists in olden days depicted her as a average (if not a little smaller then average), woman with a soft complection and delicate features.

Here are a few examples of the depiction of "Venus" that many people today are used to...

http://www.flickr.com/photos/litmuse/75596591/

and then of course Botticelli's most famous "The Birth of Venus"

http://www.abm-enterprises.net/artgall2/botticelli_birth_venus.jpg

bigbadteacher said...

this post has been graded.

Robinson said...

Way back in the 80's, it was taught to me as 'fact' that the Venus/Woman of Willendorf is a fertility fetish - sort of like a lucky charm. Obesity in a time of scarcity would have been a sign of a woman's ability to survive pregnancy and sustain a child. Farming and food storage were new concepts in the paleolithic period, so food stores would be more likely represented through the fattening during times of plenty - her obesity represents the plenty necessary for the survival of the species.

As for the labeling as a 'Venus,' I understand the point. Art and art history especially are patriarchal constructs.

Anyway, the Venus is one of my favorite objects from art history.

Randilyn said...

Good for people to know.