James Kettlewell

Rethinking Classic Themes in Art History

The Venus of Willendorf

The Venus of Willendorf.  22,000-21,000 BCE In the Natural History (Naturhistorisches) Museum in Vienna

The Venus of Willendorf is the oldest famous work of art. Though well over a hundred similar images have been found from the Paleolithic age, this is the example included in every book surveying art history.

In the survey courses I have taught, I would always begin with this image and, to counteract the common but non-productive statement that everyone sees works of art differently, I would note at the start that this is the figure of a woman. Then I would proceed to point out all that could be objectively observed about the statue. Most texts spend more words speculating about what function it might have served, always with the disclaimer that we could never be certain of the answer in a work of art so far removed from us in time. I always believe that the study of a work of art should begin with objective observations, with the conviction that these should provide us with as much as we would need to know to experience it aesthetically, which is, after all, the primary purpose of art, as opposed to artifacts. There is a great deal about the Venus of Willendorf which should be beyond dispute, and, at the same time, aesthetically significant.

Of course the name traditionally given her, the “Venus” of Willendorf has recently been disputed, for reasons that may have political overtones, and the latest texts refer to the statue as simply “The Woman from Willendorf,” as if she were merely a visitor from some small town. I prefer “Venus” because of the fact that this name is loaded with its own significance, and has become an integral part of the history of the work. To call her simply a woman is to cover the image with a fig leaf it could do without.

Start with the material–limestone. And what could you say right away about that? This image is far more permanent than the artist who made it. It transcended his death. (It is probably not a wrong assumption, that the artist was male.) The Venus of Willendorf was meant to outrun the entropy which, this artist must have observed, compromises all things on earth. Surviving 22,000 years (according to the latest technical dating) is a long time. We might also say that this material was quite tough to carve, which alone speaks of its importance to the artist.

Then the scale...there could be no dispute about that. The work is small, 4 7/16th to 4 3/4 inches high. Different sources, for some reason, give different measurements. But small it certainly is, which would make it a hand-held and portable object. This would establish a special intimacy with the person holding it, an intimacy not possible with the similar images found carved on the walls of caves.

Not so apparent today is the original color. The limestone material was painted with red ochre, that is “barn red,” the hue, not incidentally, of blood. The red in both blood and the paint comes from the iron content. Without making the slightest attempt to find a meaning, the color of blood should still have an effect that all humans of any time could respond to.

There is no question that this is the figure of a woman. Female attributes are given extraordinary stress. And there is no question that this woman is naked. Of course there may be erotic connotations in this nakedness, but, without forcing such an interpretation, we can agree that, being naked, the image clearly exposes the female attributes which are the essence of this work. And we can be sure it is a woman who is extremely well fed.  Even to suggest she is fat is not a personal interpretation, but something that should be obvious to anyone. That fat has meaning. Consider when and where this Venus lived, when all food had to be gathered or killed, and its availability was never guaranteed. In her age corpulence would have made the most positive kind of statement. So would the fact that she is naked. We are so accustomed to naked females in art (which is something else to think about) that we give this essential feature barely a thought. Considering when and where this figure would have lived, in northern Europe at the tail end of an ice age, nakedness would also have had positive connotations. We have to assume the figure is shown in a warm environment, probably in spring or summer (I prefer spring) which would be the best time of year in her difficult world. So here we have two simple positive factors; plenty of food, plenty of warmth, at a time when these would not always have been available. In Paleolithic Europe everyone would have been extremely aware that the opposites of food and warmth, starvation or freezing, would threaten death.

Then there is the forceful issue of her sex–and of sex in a more general sense. Female attributes, breasts and thighs, are stressed–but consider how much stressed–to the point where those aspects of the human body that are not specifically female were suppressed. Like a true artist, the sculptor went beyond natural appearances to concentrate on what was important to him. Consider that he designed this female form with impossibly spindly arms, and lacking feet. Nor is this Venus allowed to be present as a person, let alone a personality. She has a conspicuous hairstyle, but no face. The artist overrode reality to give emphasis only to general female attributes. The form was manipulated aggressively to achieve an archetype of femaleness, and, in that sense, the traditional title of “Venus” fits.

Whether the Venus of Willendorf is pregnant or not has to belong to the realm of interpretation, a realm which, at the moment, seethes with gender politics. I prefer to believe that she is not pregnant, since it is not clear in the form, and it pulls the idea of femaleness too much away from an archetype to a more narrow concept. Of course the world had rushed to conclude that the Venus of Willendorf is a fertility goddess, or something like that. However, in our own time, no one seems to be claiming such an interpretation for Playboy centerfolds. Risking gender politics, I think it is not wrong to place the Venus in a centerfold context, at least in one aspect of her reason for being. After all, the cognitive and other equipment of her maker in 22,000 B.C. would have been the same as the readers of Playboy. Her function could have been that of a sexual stimulant, and perhaps, in her day, she served as a sexual surrogate.

There has been much speculation about the Venus’s purpose, but, as happens in so much of what is written about art, really important artistic factors tend to be ignored, and only the subject matter discussed. One of the wonderful things about the Venus of Willendorf is how much it was designed, and how much that makes it, after all, a work of art. Why should that not be important?

As art the Venus of Willendorf qualifies as fabulous. In the overall composition there is that intensified unity of great art, that unity the human consciousness craves in all things.  First there was the all-over unifying red coloration, then the fact that the body parts are compacted  into a simple, lozenge shape. An unbroken, rhythmic contour surrounds the whole. Then there are the harmonies, the organization of rhyming parts around a strict central axis. The Venus has the symmetry of the Parthenon, making each side of the body a harmonious repetition of the other. Do you think the human body is symmetrical? Look again. It may be symmetrical, but it almost never appears symmetrical. Only the Royal guards at Buckingham palace could be considered symmetrical. In normal experience we see the human body draped freely around the real world. It is almost never lined up like a Buckingham Palace guard. The symmetry of the Venus has to be an artistic choice, not an example of matching reality.

But there is a still more subtle harmony by which this artist exalted his form, a feature which I think might qualify the Willendorf as one of the greatest of the some 140 so called Venus sculptures that survive from the period. This is the lovely harmony of organic curves, repeating each other rhythmically in the outlines and in the swel ling surfaces of the figure’s shapes. In the same way the greatest of Greek sculptures have curves like this, even in locations where they are lacking on a living human form. If you don’t believe me, check out our naked Playboy model against the body of the greatest sculpted Venus of ancient Greece, the “Aphrodite of Cyrene.” (I love the fact that you can Google her.) Of course, still better, compare the Aphrodite’s surfaces and edges with those of an obliging friend. You’ll see what I mean. The body of an actual human form, even in an example we would think of as beautiful, often simply goes flat. Of course I believe with William Hogarth, that there is beauty in organic curves. Whatever your thoughts are in this matter, the point I am making is that the curves give a common quality to every part of this form, effecting those harmonies the human conscious craves in the same way it craves unity.

So we can speculate about, but could never know, the original function of the Venus of Willendorf. 24,000 years separate us in time. As an art form, though, there is much that we can perceive in the work that can be considered as objectively true, as against personal or scholarly interpretations, and there is much that we can respond to with the same cognitive apparatus with which we would respond to the art of Praxiteles or Picasso.

A final note. Small figurines of nude females, in many media, are a common motif in cultures scattered through time and across the surface of the earth. An example from ancient Mexico is on my mantlepiece. On the other hand, comparable images of nude male figures are a rarity. Apparently the making of images of nude females can be considered the product of some kind of universal human impulse.