Magazine article The Spectator

Take a Girl like Venus

Magazine article The Spectator

Take a Girl like Venus

Article excerpt

Faszination Venus

(Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne,

till 7 January 2001) One day round about 1813, J.B.S. Morritt of Rokeby Park in Yorkshire spent a happy afternoon having his servants hoist Velazquez's 'Venus' - `my fine picture of Venus's backside' - into position in his library. As he wrote to his friend Walter Scott:

It is an admirable light for the painting and shows it to perfection, whilst raising the said backside to a considerable height the ladies may avert their downcast eyes ... and connoisseurs steal a glance without drawing the said posterior into the company.

Faszination Venus, which transfers from Cologne to Munich and then to Antwerp, fields an impressive number of back and indeed frontsides of that quintessential beauty, goddess of love and fertility. Now in London's National Gallery, the Rokeby Venus (1650) is one of several masterpieces conspicuous by their absence. But the lay out of the exhibition is so intelligently and scientifically conceived (in nine sections, each respecting a major iconographic representation of the goddess) and the general standard of works so high that it does not really matter. Botticelli's `Birth of Venus', for example, is not there, but a Botticcelli workshop standing figure of Venus, circa 1486-88 is - remarkably close in looks to the scallop-born version, she has the same gentle sway of the hips and covers herself modestly with a lavish length of hair.

Not surprisingly, given her family background (born of the sea from the foam produced by the bollocks of the castrated Uranus, according to the Greek poet Hesiod), Venus was not a nice girl. When not lolling around on sofas as an object of adoration, half-heartedly repelling satyrs (Sebastiano Ricci's `Venus surprised by a satyr' 1710) or doing a brazen bit of fingering and thinking (Titian's `Venus of Urbino', represented here by a 19th-century copy), she could be very vain, too. The iconographic theme of Venus looking at herself in a mirror was particularly pleasing to the French, as we see in the section `The Toilet of Venus' with works ranging from two 16th-century Fontainebleau school paintings, both elegant exercises in upperclass nudity, to Simon Vouet and Charles Mellin's languid, somewhat melancholy work of 1626.

Vanity was the perfect excuse for producing female nudity au gout du jour hence the tooth enamel-stripping sugariness of the 1746 canvas of Frangois Boucher, a lifelong Venus fan. …

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