January 9, 2005

The Venus De Milo – The French Elgin Marbles?

Posted at 7:27 pm in Similar cases

In the early 19th century, during & after the Napoleonic wars there was a fierce rivalry between the French & British to prove who was the superior country.
With the British acquisition of the Elgin Marbles, France had no comparable landmark artwork that could be perceived as equivalent.
A new book documents the acquisition, as well as how it was more recently realised to be of a later date than first thought & therefore not of such artistic significance.

The Sunday Times

The Sunday Times – Books
January 09, 2005

Art: The Story of the Venus de Milo by Gregory Curtis
DISARMED: The Story of the Venus de Milo
by Gregory Curtis

Sutton £19.99 pp247

Although armless and made of marble, the Venus de Milo was once regarded as the model of female physical perfection. Today, however, we would probably find her waist too thick, and her bust too big. At 6ft 7in, she is also too tall. Nevertheless, she remains one of the world’s most famous sculptures and, apart from the Mona Lisa, the world’s most well-known representation of a woman.

It is a promising subject for a book, then, beginning with the story of the Venus’s discovery — in 1820 by a French naval officer on the rocky island of Milos in the Cyclades. She was sold to France for 1,000 francs by the Greek authorities, but the French, prudently anticipating every eventuality, then paid the Turks as well. The Venus de Milo, or, more accurately, the Aphrodite of Milos, entered the Louvre in 1821, and has been there ever since.

It is here that the problems for the author of the archly entitled Disarmed clearly began, because, apart from a few scholarly cat fights, the statue was involved in almost nothing worth mentioning from that time on. How, then, does Gregory Curtis manage to fill more than 240 pages? Well, he talks about the social role of women in classical Greece and pads out his narrative with a series of abridged portraits of people, some with no direct connection to the statue. They include the German super-scholar Johann Joachim Winckelmann (he began the vogue for classical art in the 18th century, was said by Casanova to have been a sodomite and was murdered in mysterious circumstances), and Louis XVIII, who was so obese that the only sexual satisfaction he could achieve involved taking snuff from between the breasts of his mistress.

In fairness, these anecdotes, although irrelevant, are never dull, and some of the questions Curtis addresses are extremely relevant. What happened to the statue’s arms? Where were they first positioned? In what setting was the statue originally installed? Was she painted and hung with jewels as so many Greek statues were? Was she unaccompanied, or, for example, shown with a Mars or a Cupid? Was she a Venus at all? What happened to the other pieces of sculpture uncovered with her, including the statue’s base with a Greek inscription? More interesting, however, are the ways in which the Venus has been interpreted since its discovery. At first admired as a rare and matchless example of classical art, created perhaps by the great Praxiteles, the statue is now known to be later, and by a far lesser hand. When did the appraisal change and how does it affect the way we see the statue?

In a rambling prose style that sadly lacks any edge, Curtis shows how the French sought to exploit the statue as a public-relations tool in the interests of nationalism. After 1815, France was obliged to return to their rightful owners many of the treasures looted by Napoleon. The greatest of these was the Apollo Belvedere, now restored to the Vatican. Its absence left France bereft of a comparable classical masterpiece and with a cultural inferiority complex. This became almost pathological when, in 1816, the British Museum hit the jackpot by acquiring the Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon. So the acquisition of the Venus de Milo five years later promised to give France its cultural confidence back again.

But the art-historical importance of the statue (and the cultural confidence) depended on the statue’s date. It needed to come from the period 450-350BC because only then was Greek sculpture at its most perfect (the Elgin marbles date from about 440 BC). Alas, the Venus de Milo sadly turned out to have been made 50 years later, at a moment when, as all experts agree, classical Greek sculpture was in decline. What did the French do about this fatal intelligence? They kept it quiet, and continued to do so for 130 years. Then they quietly accepted the truth. It is surely the downgrading of the Venus de Milo’s importance that persuaded Melina Mercouri, when she was Greek minister for culture, not to demand the statue back.

Expert opinion about dates, authorship and authenticity inevitably affects the way we react to any work of art. Crowds of uninformed visitors to the Louvre can thrill to the beauty of the Venus de Milo because they expect to. The more independently minded, however, will agree with Curtis when he admitted to being “vaguely unmoved, or even repelled” by “that rather chill giantess in the Louvre”. This book tells you why.

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