Tag Archives: Venus de Milo

If there is one theme that overrides the whole set of notes on our trip to France in 2002, it is that of the French love of “logique” and systemization, versus the older Gothic love of “the things of this world.” Even the Baroque in France is oddly static and toned down. So, when we finally got to the megaplex that is the Louvre, it is hardly surprising that the same questions arose again.

As usual, click to enlarge any photo.

Louvre and pyramid

Friday April 5

After nearly two weeks, we finally made it to the Louvre. It isn’t that we weren’t interested, but we’ve had a lot of other stuff on our agenda, mostly dealing with Gothic churches.

Hall of RubensTo say the Louvre is big is to say the Pacific Ocean is wide. It hardly covers it. We spent the whole day there and saw maybe a 20th of it. We saw parts of the Greek statuary, the northern European late Medieval painting, the big hall of Italian Renaissance and Baroque painting and a few halls of French Baroque painting, to take in the Poussins and Claudes, which I was hungry to see.

That not only wore us out, it took from about 10 a.m. to about 4:30 p.m., when, exhausted and with throbbing feet, we finally set our course back to the hotel.

There is a problem seeing so many “hall of fame” paintings, so many “greatest hits” in one go round. You cannot do much but cover the highlights and you look at one famous painting after another and take notes on this small aspect or that: the way the brushstrokes feather in Leonardo’s La belle jardiniereVirgin and Saint Anne; the overall bluish caste to Ingres’ Odalisque; the tricolor reflections of the water drops in Delacroix’s Dante in the Boat.

It isn’t just that there wasn’t time to spend an hour or two with each masterwork, but that just being in the Louvre, with the crowds of tourists, and the hugger-mugger of Jansen regulars, the occasion of it all, prevents you from being able to concentrate.

Here is Raphael’s Belle Jardiniere, there is the Mona Lisa. Here is the Avignon Pieta, there is the Bust of Homer. You take them in with the instantaneity of an art appreciation slide show, one after the other. Even if you wanted to spend a few extra minutes with the Wedding at Cana, there is Liberty on the Barricades calling to you.

Which is all a terrible shame, because even with the little time you get to spend with each painting, you recognize once and again, deep in your eye sockets, how different the real painting is from the picture in the book. The looking at libertythickness of the layer of oil paint, the fineness of detail, the actuality of the color — uncaptured by the cyan, magenta and yellow inks in your Jansen text — gives you that sense of quiddity, that sense of thusness, of actualness, of event, of richness, of sense experience, that the pictures in the book can never deliver.

It is probably the ubiquity of reproduction that has led to the pathetic and word-ridden French philosophies that rule art criticism currently. All you can get out of the reproduction is the iconography, which is the intellectualized part of the painting, and if that is all you get, you miss the sense experience, which subverts the intellectualization and renders it shallow.

For me, this is most evident in the northern Medieval and Renaissance paintings, which have a textured surface of paint, mimicking the damasked cloth being represented, or the gold leaf which sits atop the oil paint.Van Eyck Rolin Madonna

And what a deep and satisfying green Van Eyck has found. You can practically see it as ground up emerald or other jewel, suspended in the oil. The green is dark, intense as a clear night and transparent as stained glass. Louvre guardWhen one sees a real painting, one knows great beauty, and great joy in its apprehension. Though it soaks in through your eyes, you feel it in your fingertips, smell it, taste it, and almost hear it. It makes all your senses buzz.

Part of it is taste, certainly — gout. Others may prefer the Italian Renaissance to the Northern one, or may really like the sweeping flesh tones of Rubens or the sausage fingers of Ingres. But whether it is the vermilion in the cloth painted by Poussin or the ultramarine of Mary’s robe in a million other paintings, the direct, uninterpreted experience is the primary gift of great art.

Of course, not all the great art in Paris is paint.

Chez Alexis&DanielWe went back to Chez Daniel et Alexis for dinner tonight. The tiny toy pinscher met us at the door and followed us to the table. He must have remembered my petting him the other night, because he was all affection. He climbed up on the seat next to me and nuzzled his little nose in my coat the whole time we ate supper.

Which was, again, magnificent. Carole’s asparagus in melted gruyer was heaven in a dish. Our chicken plat, stuffed with mushrooms, was tres bien, and our desserts — well, we couldn’t finish them.Louvre lunch

And this is only dinner. For lunch, we ate at one of the Louvre restaurants and had quiche with tomato and chicken in it, and desserts: Carole had three little custards, and I had chocolate.

It is embarrassing to keep on about the food, but food by itself is sufficient reason to visit Paris. Everything else is gravy — I mean, sauce.

Carole’s take on things:

Felt good all day because I wore black, like the French women. And fashionable shoes, rather than the athletic shoes I’ve been wearing.

Thrilled to be going to the Louvre. I still can’t believe we went.

Carole & LaurenWe got a beautiful bouquet of lilacs for Lauren, our waitress at Le Petit Cardinal and she was very pleased.

Now, at the Petit Cardinal, no one even asks us what our breakfast order will be. This morning, it was simply delivered to our table.

Richard hugged me on the way down the steps to the metro and smiled at me.

There’s no highlight better than that.

The Louvre was vast and I was amazed. I thought it would be like the old Smithsonian, with paintings from the floor to the ceiling, and the interior spaces jammed with objects, but it was very open and some rooms had only three paintings. I saw the son of god crucified for probably four continuous hours and then a lot of rosy flesh flying through the air (Rubens). A whole lot of satin flying through the air. But the first part of our visit to the Louvre was my favorite, seeing the northern European late Medieval paintings of the Virgin and child, and other religious subjects.

I like them because they’re fervent.Avignon Pieta

Winged VictoryNear the end of the day, after seeing all of the extravagant paintings on biblical subjects and historical paintings, the museum began to smell funny to me, at first it seemed like the bathrooms, then I thought maybe it was the restaurant. Then I became disgusted with what I thought might be the smell of all the people. And then, because I was getting so tired, I began to have a horrible feeling that I was smelling death around the old Grecian tombs and I was very happy to go out into the air.

On the way back to our hotel, we stopped at a perfumerie and I had a wonderful time there and got some Lalique for Paul, Jolie Madame for mother and a little tube of cologne for Aunt Veosie and a bottle La Nuit for myself. Jasmine.

I chose perfumes you could only get in France. These are not exported.

We came back and rested. And the sweetest part of the day was seeing the little dog nestled against Richard in the restaurant.

Richard’s version of events:

Carole wanted to see northern European late Medieval paintings. I wanted to see Claude and Poussin. We did both, but in the end, I had to agree the northern European art was better, or more enjoyable, with a deeper commitment to real life.

I was a bit surprised at how loose much of Poussin’s paintings are, and especially, how dark, brown and gray they are. How much of the dinginess comes from too much varnish over too many centuries and how much was by design, I cannot tell.

I wanted to love the Poussins more. But I have to admit, on the whole, they seem constipated, both in subject matter and in execution.

The Claudes fared a bit better, although they also seemed yellowed with ancient varnish. Perhaps the film of yellow suits him better than it suits Poussin.

But, ultimately, the Claudes disappoint, too. They are simply too far removed from real experience, too stylized, too fantasized. Too intellectualized, and not immediate enough.

Unlike the Memlings, Holbeins, van der Weydens and — hallelujah — van Eycks in the northern European section, which bristle with real experience.Graces recto et verso

Constitutionally, I also respond to the textures of those early Flemish and German paintings, with their tight patterns and brilliant color, so unlike the artificially brown and slate tones of the French Baroque.

Gericault dans le LouvreIt wasn’t really a big surprise to see how vast the Louvre is. I knew it was big. But I was surprised by several familiar paintings that are much bigger than I ever imagined: Veronese’s Wedding at Cana; Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa; David’s Rape of the Sabine Women; Gros’s Napoleon at the Pest House of Joffa. They would have taken scaffolding to paint.Twin Venuses

Oh, and Delacroix’s Death of Sardanapalus. Another giant.

I can’t say I was overwhelmed by the Big Noises in Hellenistic sculpture: the Venus de Milo, the Winged Victory of Samothrace. Yes, they’re nice enough, but a little too deracinated for my taste. I want either the Classical Hellenic sculpture of the Elgin marbles, or the really over the top Hellenism of the Laocoon. These marquee pieces at the Louvre seem a bit tame, and the stylization of the nude female figure bothers me: No real woman was ever built the way the Venus de Milo is — and I’m not referring to her missing arms.

apple cut

Have you ever been in love? Do you love chocolate?

Do you love your mother? Do you love heavy metal music? The smell of dew in newly cut grass? Perhaps you love irony.dinner knife

We toss the word ”love” around as if it meant only one thing, but love of Monday Night Football is significantly different from Tristan’s love for Isolde. We use the same word, but we mean different things.

It’s the same way with ”art.” The tiny trigram covers an enormous range, from late Beethoven quartets to the design on your dinner knife. And then we have trouble defining it, because we are looking for one single definition that will fit all cases. It should be no surprise that we can’t find it.

The problem with discussing art is that one person’s Rembrandt is the next person’s Hershey bar.elvis 2

So when I write that black-velvet Elvis paintings simply aren’t art, I’m guilty of hyperbole. Of course that is art. It just isn’t good art.

(There are some people who believe that ”bad art” is an oxymoron. Or as my late friend, the great Dimitri Drobatschewsky, used to say, “There’s no such thing as bad art; if it is bad, it isn’t art.”)

Working on the assumption that art requires ability, they make the analogy that bad art isn’t art the same way ”bad ability” isn’t ability.

Yet, there is a very wide range of abilities. Can we discount Henri Rousseau because he didn’t have the technique of Raphael? Surely it still deserves the name of art. And how about Jeff Koons’ basketballs floating in a fish tank? mbulu nguluHow much craftsmanship did that require? And yet, if it isn’t art, what the hell is it? Surely the definition of art is broad and deep.

If we attempt to be inclusive, if we attempt to find a definition that covers Rembrandt, Shakespeare, the prints that hang on a motel-room wall, the designs cut into a Western belt, the mbulu-ngulu figure of Africa and shakuhachi music from Japan, things get murky.

But that is only because we have set an impossible task: finding that illusive single definition for art.


Yet, if we step back and attempt to see art as a whole rather than attempt to make a polemical case for our favorite corner of the art universe, we can begin to see at least the general outline of the subject. It also becomes clear that art must have a four-sided definition: The whole can be divided in half from side to side, or from front to back.

Sliced from side to side, there are two apple-halves of art.

First, there is the decorative side of art. Whether it is racing stripes on a car or a landscape over the sofa, art of this order attempts to make our lives more graceful. We use it to decorate our lives and the things of our lives.

On a more serious note, it is art that is a palliative against the abrasiveness of living. If we must suffer in love and business, we should be able to escape that in art. Hence, Broadway musicals.bass buckle

On the simplest level, it is the shape of your belt buckle, the color you choose for your Toyota, the typeface of your letterhead.

On a more refined level, it is Monet painting mural-size pictures of waterlilies for the Orangerie.

Overall, it is the sense that beauty is somehow the opposite of life and that art should embrace beauty and turn its back on pain and suffering, or at least idealize them and therefore freeze them into powerlessness.disasters of war


But the other apple-half wants us to engage with life, complete with all its sufferings, frustrations and complexities. This view recognizes that art is a means we use to come to terms with life. All of life.

It says that art is the test we give to truth. As science confronts fact, art confronts truth. In this sense, art distinguishes between the genuine and counterfeit, the possible from the impossible, the passion from the sentimentality, the moral from the moralistic.

Art is in some sense a virtual reality, a model of the world that we can use, as an airplane designer uses his computer model or a climatologist uses his, to test our version of reality.

In another way of putting it, art isn’t the opposite of reality, but in fact, art creates reality.

It is one of the often overlooked verities that without art to picture what the world looks and feels like, we would not be able to see or feel the world at all.

The worlds of sensation and emotion are so infinitely complex, such a swirling mass of input, that we are forced to filter the information and organize it to make sense of it. Art is the means by which we do this.


Egyptian figuresIt is the cumulative power of all our arts that defines our culture and its view of reality. The arts create civilization and not the other way around.

The style differences between cultures are not questions of fashion and taste but of how those cultures decide to see the world.

An ancient Egyptian wall painting, with its stylized poses and almond eyes, probably looked as real to the ancient Egyptians as a Renaissance painting looks to us.

Because we are not part of that culture, we can spot the artifice on the pharaoh’s tomb, but are harder pressed to see the distortion and artificiality of Renaissance perspective. But it is just as schematic, just as false as the Egyptian. Always, the image that falls on your retina is different from the image that forms in your mind. Art is how we learn to transform the one into the other.Waiting-for-Godot

From this view, art is the discovery or creation of meaning and order from the chaos of perception and experience.

And that is why some people prefer Waiting for Godot over The Odd Couple. Godot feels more true.

With the apple sliced this way, the argument is Vladimir and Estragon vs. Felix and Oscar.


Ah, but if we slice the apple from front to back, we have a completely different argument on our hands.

This one asks, ”Is art a noun or a verb?”

If art is a noun, then it is an artifact. Seen this way, the art is the painting on the wall, the poem on the page. Art is what the artist creates, what is left when the artist walks away.

But if art is instead a verb, it is seen as the process that creates the painting. In this view, the finished canvas is only a byproduct of the art.

In this view, what counts is what the artist learns in the process of making the art. A residue of what he learns is evident in the resultant poem, painting or symphony, and an attentive audience, as they experience the art, must in essence re-create the journey the artist took.

This view requires rather more effort on the part of the audience. When the process becomes the point, the viewer cannot remain a couch potato.

It is what we mean when we say a certain play or piece of music is ”difficult.” It is art as hard work.

Art as noun leads to a scholar’s view of art, or a connoisseur’s. All one needs to possess it is a large enough bank account.

But with art as a verb, you cannot have it unless you earn it through your own emotional and intellectual barn paint by number


So let us reassemble the apple and see if all art can be encompassed in its sphere. Here is a provisional definition of art:

Art is something made by human hand or mind, or the making of something by hand or mind, that graces our lives or the things of our lives with beauty; or the same thing that explores experience and attempts to discover or create meaning. That meaning can be personal or communal, spiritual or perceptual, emotional or intellectual.

I have no doubt that there is a worm in this apple, and I encourage readers to search for it. If this definition is where I light for the moment, I am not unaware that the problem of coming to terms with art has remained difficult through the eons. But maybe this short explication sets the mark as high as I can stretch for the time.

It is as Sappho once wrote: ”Like an apple ripening on an upper branch, passed over by apple pickers — no, not passed over, but too high to reach.”

Memo:031a venus di milos


— Art can teach us to see

— Art can grace the ugliness

— Art can be used to express the mythology we believe in

— Art can be the note pad of the unconscious

— Art can be propaganda

— Art can be merchandise

— Art can be a value judgment

— Art can investigate the nature of reality

— Art can unify the senses and the intellect

— Art can be a means of causing meditation or contemplation

— Art can give names to things that have no names

— Art can illustrate a text, adding emotional resonance or clarity

— Art can give us roots

— Art can give us a past

— Art can be used to enforce a political agenda

— Art can be a means of recapturing what we think we have lost

— Art can establish class distinctions

— Art can be the satisfaction of form

— Art can be misunderstood and still be effective

— Art can be subversive, but not on a political level

— Art can be evidence of maturing taste

— Art may raise your IQ

— Art can be wealth

— Art can be instruction

— Art can be substitute language (including international symbols)

— Art can be fashion

— Art can be design

— Art can be secret communication

— Art can be an exploration of the non-verbal

— Art can be anything beyond the primary body needs

— Art can make a fetish from simple body needs: a certain way of eating

— Art can encompass everything mental, as opposed to physical

— Art can be packaging

— Art can be comic, lyric, epic or dramatic

— Art can lie to us profoundly

— Art can yank our chains

— Art can provide models for behavior

— Art can clarify something insufficiently clear in words

— Art can be the codification of values

— Art can unseat old values

— Art can be creation of order in a chaotic universe

— Art can be creation of chaos in an orderly society

— Art can unify a culture

— Art can separate elements of the culture

— Art can be as rigorous as physics

— Art can be as sloppy as mud wrestling

— Art can heal a wounded psyche

— Art can open wounds

— Art can be the object hanging on the wall

— Art can be the process that makes the object

— Art can be the means of defining the ego

— Art can be the means of defining the culture

— Art can be the communal experience of audience

— Art can be singular experience

— Art can provide an entree into the past

— Art can provide the key to understanding an alien culture

— Art can amuse us

— Art can bore us

— Art can be craftsmanship

— Art can make magicrousseau


In 1991, actress Demi Moore posed for a famous Vanity Fair cover photograph, taken by celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz. It exploded as a “meme,” and was copied many more times.

Soon, it became impossible for an aspiring starlet not to be seen naked and gravid on the cover of one magazine or other.

Leibovitz herself seemed to feel “ripped off” and sued when an ad featuring Leslie Nielsen used the pose to sell the film, Naked Gun 33 ⅓: The Final Insult.

The courts didn’t agree with her, and anyway, we had moved on to other memes, including dancing cats on You Tube. The courts could hardly have decided otherwise, not only on the basis of fair use for parody, but because borrowing poses has been an essential tool in artists’ kit for millennia.

As Picasso didn’t actually say, “Good artists borrow; great artists steal.” Actually, that quote has been attributed not only to Picasso, but to T.S. Eliot and Igor Stravinsky, but goes back at least to 1897, when a variant version was used by critic W.H. Davenport Adams. Even quotes get borrowed or “stolen.”venus and eve

L-R: Venus de Milo; Eva Green in The Dreamers (2003).

The examples are legion. My interest came to me through the paintings of Manet, Titian and Giorgione.

First let’s look at a few examples.

One of the most familiar is the pose of the “Three Graces.” It shows up in many forms in antiquity.3 graces antiquity

L-R: mural from Pompeii; statue in the Louvre; mosaic from Anatolia.

It was used by many Old Master painters.3 Graces renaissance

L-R: Raphael; Rubens; Pontormo.

And even later.3 Graces recent

L-R: Edward Burne-Jones; Henri Regnault; Leonard Nimoy.

You could find dozens of others.

Adam and Eve became such a meme, too. One version has Adam with his arms around Eve. It became used for other things, too.Adam&Eve trio

L-R: Jan Gossaert, 1520; Gossaert, Neptune and Amphytrion, 1517; Two Virgins album, 1968.

Or take the famous Botticelli painting, Birth of Venus. The pose, with the goddesses hands vaguely protecting her modesty, and you find it all over Classical art and Renaissance painting, to say nothing about one of the oldest figures in Western art.Birth of venus archetype

Or even Playboy magazine, which — probably not on purpose — imitates some other, more famous images.buns foursome

Top: Playboy; Gauguin. Bottom: Boucher; Modigliani

But the main course:Edouard_Manet_-_Olympia_-_Google_Art_Project_3

Victorine_Louise_Meurent_(1844-1927)Edouard Manet created a scandal in the 1865 Paris salon when he exhibited his Olympia, a nude featuring the model Victorine Louise Meurent dressed up — or rather undressed — as a prostitute. She wasn’t, by the way, and later became a painter herself. Here is what she really looked like in 1865.

Her pose in the painting is an obvious quote of two famous paintings of the past, Titian’s Venus of Urbino from 1538,venus of urbino by titian

and Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus, from 1510 (and probably finished by Titian, after Giorgione’s death).Giorgione_-_Sleeping_Venus_-_Google_Art_Project_2

The salient points of the pose are the recumbent nude woman, with her calves crossed.

This is a pose that even Giorgione can take no credit for. It goes back to antiquity. Here she is from PompeiiAphrodite_Anadyomene_from_Pompeii_cropped

The full meme version is the Titian painting, with these other points that get “borrowed” over and over, including in the Manet version.venus of urbino with labels

olympia handNotice that the space of the painting is divided in half, near and far, and that there is a distinct vertical line that, in this case points downward directly to the model’s pudenda, which is caressed by the curling fingers of her left hand. This gesture is highly ambiguous: Is she really masturbating? Can a great master really have meant that to be our take-away?

In the Manet, the similar gesture is more assertive: Olympia uses her hand as a kind of gate to paradise for which she and she alone holds the key. You won’t get past that hand unless she gives permission.

There is also an animal in the picture, other subordinate people.

These elements are used over and over, not least of all by Titian himself, who used the pose, or variants in several paintings.jupiter&antiope titian 1535

Jupiter and Antiope from 1535.venus&cupid titian 1550

Venus and Cupid from 1550.Venus,venuscupid and organist titan 1548

Cupid and the Organist, from 1548.

venus, organist and little dog, titian 1550And then, more lasciviously, in the variant, Venus, Organist and Little Dog, from 1550, in which the so-called “male gaze” is fairly explicit, even comical.

But Titian is not the only artist obsessed with this pose. Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553) painted nearly a dozen versions between 1515 and 1550, which he usually titled Nymph at the Fountain. Here are four of them.Cranach composite

She can’t quite figure out just what to do with that left hand.

Through so many of these paintings, note the presence of animals, the near-far background, the frequent strong vertical line bisecting the picture, and the frequent use of drapery behind the woman’s head.

Not all these paintings have all the components of the Ur-painting of Urbino, but each has some of the components.

Here’s a 1639 painting by Guido Reni, with the crossed legs, the drapery, the near-far and if there are no animals, well, Cupid at least has wings.reclining venus guido reni 1639

A 1540 painting by Paris Bordone, called Sleeping Venussleepingvenus bordone 1540

From 1523, a Sleeping Venus from Girolamo da Trevesisleepingvenus da treviso jr

From 1520 and Palma Vecchiovenus palma vecchio 1520

Even in the north, from Maarten von Heemskerk, in 1545Venus&cupid heemskerck 1545

And Jan Massys painted her as Flora in 1514023 Flora Jan Massys 1514  copy

While most of these come from the 16th century, the pose streches beyond, including this 1844 Nude Girl on Panther Skin by Felix Trutatnude girl on Panther Skin Felix Trutat 1844

Lord Frederic Leighton painted Cymon and Iphegenia in 1884, with the pose, but with Iphigenia modestly covered in draperyleighton iphigenia

He also did the nude version, Actaea Nymph on the Shore, in 1854.actaea-the-nymph-of-the-shore-1853 lord leighton.jpg!HD

And Paul Gauguin’s Noble Woman from 1896paul-gaugin-noble-woman-1896

There are many more. A pile of them are mirror images, with the nude on the right side of the painting.

Giulio Cesare Procaccini painted Venus and Cupids in 1625venus&cupids procaccini 1625

Palma Giovane in 1610 did Venus and Cupid at Vulcan’s Forgevenus&cupid at vulcan's forge giovane 1610

Lorenzo Lotto’s 1540 Venus and Cupid gets kinkyvenus&cupid lorenzo lotto 1540

Allesandro Allori’s Venus and Cupid from 1586venus&cupid Alles allori

Sebastiano Ricci’s Venus and Satyr from 1720venus and satyr sebastiano ricci 1720

I think you can even make a case for Piero di Cosimo’s Venus and Mars from 1490. Although, here it is Mars with the crossed legs. Still, animals.venus&mars piero di cosimo 1490

This is just a skim across the surface. I’m sure you can find many more examples of the reclining nude, legs crossed, with animals or cupids, with figures in the background and a wandering hand.

I’ll leave you with only three more:

Pablo Picasso’s parody, Olympia, from 19011901_pablo_picasso olympia

and Claes Oldenburg’s Pat, Lying as Olympia from 1959OldenPat,_Lying_as_Olympia 1959

And finally, E.J. Bellocq’s Storyville prostitute from New Orleans in ca. 1912bellocq13 copy

This meme gets around.