"You are so careful of your boy's morals, knowing how troublesome they may be, that you keep him away from the Venus of Milo only to find him in the arms of the scullery maid or someone much worse. You decide that the Hermes of Praxiteles and Wagner's Tristan are not suited for young girls; and your daughter marries somebody appallingly unlike either Hermes or Tristan solely to escape from your parental protection. You have not stifled a single passion nor averted a single danger: you have depraved the passions by starving them, and broken down all the defences which so effectively protect children brought up in freedom." (George Bernard Shaw)
|Jean-Baptiste Mauzaisse's ceiling panel of the Louvre's Salle des Bijoux, where the Venus is exhibited (1822), showing Father Chronos (Time) with his scythe, giving back the lost masterpiece.|
Viewing the naked female form meant certain death. As Actaeon witnessed much to his chagrin. Stumbling across Artemis and her entourage of shapely nymphs bathing in a secret spot of lake in the woods, the enraged goddess turned the Peeping Tom into a stag to be torn apart by his own hounds. But then, the female of the species was “kalon kakon”, a beautiful evil, ever since Pandora, the first of her kind, met Epimetheus and opened her fateful box. For centuries, “beauty” and “perfection” in Greek art, mother of Western aesthetics, was epitomised and idealised in adoration of the naked male body, climaxing in the perfection of the sculptures of the Classical period around 450 BCE in the Belle Époque of Periclean Athens. “Kalos kagathos” was the watchword of the age. Being beautiful naturally meant being good. And naked and male, of course, the counterpoint of the female “kalon kakon”. Girls and goddesses still were subjects of Greek art, but decently clothed, goes without saying. Until the age’s greatest artist, the sculptor Praxiteles, revolutionised the Greek ideal of beauty over night. He unveiled his “Aphrodite of Knidos”, moulded to the perfection of the Classical period’s golden ratio. And the lady didn’t wear a stitch. It was the first depiction of the naked female form in Greek art since the Bronze Age. Nevertheless, it was “kalos kagathos”, beautiful and good, and while Plato himself epigrammatically quipped “When Cypris saw Cypris at Cnidus, "Alas!" said she; "where did Praxiteles see me naked?", Aphrodite’s avatar, the courtesan Phryne who had modelled for the sculptor, was accused of impiety, Hypereides, her counsel for the defence, just skipped his closing argument, bared his charge’s breast before the assembled Areopagus and the judges, seized by sacred dread, simply could not condemn something so beautiful and consequently good. “Kalos kagathos” had become a female aspect as well. But the days of the pure ideal of the Classical period of ancient Greece were numbered anyway. In the wake of Alexander’s conquests, a new perspective displaced the focus of Greek artists, who now worked in a Hellenistic world reaching from Italy to India, away from goddesses and heroes and godlike athletes towards the picturesque beauty of everyday life. Drunken crones, old wrestlers, prostitutes and what not were sculpted with the same life-like perfection as deities and deified rulers. And Praxiteles’ Caravaggio-like idea of having sinners pose as saints may well have caught on.
|A Roman copy of Praxiteles' now lost Aphrodite of Knidos|
|An engraving of the Venus de Milo made shortly after her arrival in Paris, still mounted on her plinth bearing the inscription of her creator's name, Alexandros of Antioch|