She’s slutty, liberal with her flesh and favors, there’s no getting around that. Nor, truth be told, is she a woman’s woman: her behavior exhibits decided disregard for feminist sororal solitarity. She’s center stage, self-obsessed, a Queen Bee. The first ingénue and the original cougar, she’s also smoking hot, a seductress sans pareil, the idealization and embodiment of female beauty and power—who knows her way around the bedroom for certain and perhaps the battlefield as well, a multitasker who represents and endures both the creative and the destructive forces of desire and passion that have fueled artists from the birth of Western classical art onwards, not to mention adolescents (and adults) across the ages.
Meet Aphrodite as she is presented in Aphrodite and the Gods of Love. The first U.S. exhibition devoted exclusively to the Love Goddess and her amorous realm, it’s currently (through July 9) in Malibu, not on a scallop shell rising from the foam of the Pacific but at the Getty Villa, the 64-acre ocean-view complex and 48,000 square feet of galleries placed in a building inspired by the Villa dei Papyri, an ancient Roman villa from the ancient Roman city of Herculaneum destroyed by the eruption of the volcano Vesuvius in AD 79, which interestingly belonged to Julius Caesar’s father-in-law—topically too as Caesar and his imperial descendants claimed direct lineage to Aphrodite through her son, the Trojan hero Aeneas. Nor is the modern mise-en-scène of Malibu any less appropriate. Do Julia Roberts and a bevy of Hollywood handmaidens and Adonises dear to the Goddess not live close by, right up the coast?
As with any major mythological figure and movie star, Aphrodite is complicated, far more than a story on E! can readily convey. It’s in the service of illumination and elucidation that the Getty exhibition shines. Organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston in association with the Getty, the exhibition debuted last fall in Boston. At the Getty, the exhibition is spread over four galleries, each conveying a different aspect of Aphrodite, with each respective aspect illustrated by pieces from the two museums’ renowned collections of ancient Greek, Roman and Near Eastern artifacts as well as by important—at times unprecedented—loans from Italian cultural institutions and museums, the Sleeping Hermaphrodite (pictured) from Rome’s Palazzo Massimo a particular showstopper for its sheer virtuosity and surprising balls.
Aphrodite begins with a literal unveiling. Standing room center at the beginning of the exhibition is the Goddess as most commonly imagined: nude, beautiful and subtly, seductively beckoning. This is Aphrodite of Knidos (“Colonna” type), the first image above, a 1st-2nd century-A.D. Roman copy of the 4th-century-B.C. Greek original by Praxiteles, one of that golden era’s most famous sculptors who with the original created the first monumental female nude in Greek art—and hence in Western art.
Also in the room, perfume vessels, storage jars and mirrors show how Aphrodite served as model and inspiration for women in boudoir and baths while demonstrating the various ways in which she as The Nude was depicted in antiquity, establishing a line that would be picked up again during the early and high Renaissance by such artists as Sandro Botticelli and The Birth of Venus, one of the most recognizable images in the world; Lucas Cranach the Elder (the representation of the myth of Venus is the most famous ongoing theme in Cranach’s repertoire, a stellar example being his Venus from 1532); the voluptuous Venuses of Titian (prime example, Venus Anadyomene, which in form and theme evokes Praxiteles’ sculpture) and Rubens (Venus at the Mirror); and made modern by the likes of Manet (the nude in Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe might be an amalgam of Manet’s wife and favorite model, but she’s pure Aphrodite in conceit), who differed in approach from 19th-century Academic painter William-Adolphe Bouguereau (whose less revolutionary Birth of Venus hangs in the Musée d’Orsay, same as Manet’s Déjeuner), and into the 20th century, with its Modern, Post-War and contemporary categories, where many of nudes still stretch languorously back to Aphrodite. (Shown in order of mention and to suitable musical accompaniment in the slideshow below.)
The three following rooms serve to flesh the Goddess out (as it were), to introduce her complexity, even contradiction. David Saunders, assistant curator of antiquities at the Getty and the exhibition’s curator, states but one entertaining example: “Although patroness of brides, she was hardly faithful to her husband, the god Hephaestus, as Hermaphrodite [son of Aphrodite and Hermes] and Priapus [son of Aphrodite and Dionysus, and represented in the exhibition by a Roman statue of the Imperial period from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston] make clear.”
Her relationship with Eros (Cupid to the Romans) is similarly contradictory. Some sources refer to him as her son, others a companion who, although depicted as a child might be far more ancient than the Goddess herself. As Christine Kondoleon, senior curator of Greek and Roman art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, who conceived and organized the exhibition wrote in its catalog: “One Hellenistic epigram humorously sums up the problem: ‘Eros is such an exhausting child that nobody wants to be his father.’ As to his other, it was not until the seventh century B.C. that the poet Sappho first called Eros the son of Aphrodite. Of the major early sources for the Olympian gods, only Hesiod writes about Eros, and then only as an attendant at Aphrodite’s birth, where he is joined by Himeros, the personification of desire and longing.” What is consistent about Eros is that he often serves to represent the capricious, potentially annihilating power of passion, as shown by the exhibition’s Statuette of Eros wearing the lionskin of Herakles (pictured), a 1st-century B.C. Greek terracotta figure that shows a mischievous boy with little-kid fat rolls, but wearing a lion skin, an attribute of Hercules and meant to convey his superhuman power.
Not even Aphrodite’s origins are definitive. It’s known she was not native to early Greek religion, but where did she come from? Cyprus, the Near East? Her genesis is as complex and multilayered as the Goddess she grew into, a deity whose purview seem to have extended to powers over the sea (she could calm the waves for smooth sailing, apparently); and, as Venus, seems to have had martial powers as well, as the exhibition’s imposing Capua Venus, which originally held a shield and whose left foot rests on a warrior’s helmet, illustrates.
Perhaps sometimes it’s not only best but sweeter not to know, or not to know too exactly. Isn’t mystery a key component of charm, after all?
Following its run at the Getty, Aphrodite and the Gods of Love will show itself at the San Antonio Museum of Art, from September 15 to February 17, 2013.
Follow us on twitter@thefastertimes
- 1 Amanda Bynes’s Behavior Revealed to Be Elaborate PSA
- 2 Obama Horrified by the Grammar in Our Emails
- 3 Monster Fart Prompting Management to Rethink “Open Office”
- 4 NSA Demanded Access To Un-Filtered Instagram Photos
- 5 Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson Ambushed By Alan ‘The Paper’ Rubinstein
- 6 ‘Licensed to Kim Jong Il’ Records 27th Straight Year Atop N. Korean Charts
- 7 ‘A/S/L’ Most Asked Question At Kaplan Online University Reunion
- 8 Vice Magazine Now Only Hiring Writers Who Fail Drug Test
- 9 Stanley Cup Final One Blowout Away From “Boston Massacre” Headline Outrage