The Venus Effect

Diego Velázquez. Rokeby Venus, c. 1647–51. 122 × 177 cm. National Gallery, London.

Velázquez’s Venus is perhaps the most naked on record: with nothing but her lovechild, Cupid, to hold up a mirror to her difuse reflection (deflection?), she lacks most of the mythic giveaways of her traditional representations. She is unlandscaped, unjewelled and unmyrtled. She can’t be [M]arsed. If not for the luxuriant fabrics she is recumbent on, or for that fleshly tongue of curtain, her room is as featureless as Cupid’s left leg, which is as faded as her face. Seen glancingly, she is the picture of a modern, mortal woman: an adaptation that, to some extent, accounts for her survival into our time.  

An icon in a history of iconoclasm, she first materialised in the private rooms of Felipe IV, to join two other mirror-carrying Venuses by Titian and Rubens. Though female nudes were rare and heavily policed in the Baroque Spanish court, Velázquez ―as court painter― was as heavily protected; his Venus admired by the king and by some of the realm’s most powerful courtiers, who ensured she didn’t succumb to hazard or censors.

This Venus is not self-absorbed, but considerate of the efforts required to protect her. She shows us her backside but not her pudendum, unlike her more brazen revision as Goya’s Nude Maja. Her gaze is averted from the viewer, but complicit with that of the painter. By hook and by crook, she made it to England, where she took on her Rokeby title and garnered the devotion of another king, Edward VII, who secured her position in London’s National Gallery.  

In Art and Illusion, E. H. Gombrich has Matisse retorting to criticism on the proportions of one of his portraits by saying: “This is not a woman, this is a painting.” The Rokeby Venus is neither.

In 1914, Mary Richardson, a British suffragette out for symbolic blood, took a meat cleaver to Venus, slashing her seven times from neck to rump. She was upset by the painting’s allure, and claimed she meant to “destroy the picture of the most beautiful woman in mythological history” to protest the arrest of Emmeline Pankhurst, “the most beautiful character in modern history.”

Befitting her stature and nature, the goddess was restored. In addition to spending six months in prison ―the maximum sentence for defacing a work of art― Ms. Richardson became an early model for a very different mirroring of womankind: the angry feminist as frenemy of the eternal feminine.

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About Mónica Belevan

Mónica Belevan is Peruvian-born philosopher and design theorist. A co-founder of design outfit Diacrítica, she is the author of "Díptico gnóstico" (Hueso húmero, 2019), "The Wreck of the Large Glass / Paleódromo" (Sublunary Editions, 2020) and "OUTSIDEININSIDEOUT" (Formato Público, 2021), the Peruvian exhibition catalogue for the 17th Venice Biennale. She is currently tracking emergent Covidian Kultur and aesthetics on LapsusLima and through this blogchain on epochal art for Ribbonfarm. She can be found on Twitter @lapsuslima

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