Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 19, 2002
Caroline Arscott and Katie Scott, eds. Manifestations of Venus: Art and Sexuality Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001. 233 pp.; 74 b/w ills. Cloth $74.95 (0719055210)

This anthology was put together by the editors under the auspices of a group of women teachers at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. Caroline Arscott, senior lecturer in nineteenth-century British art, and Katie Scott, lecturer in early modern French art and architecture, formulated and nurtured their project in discussions with their colleagues, several of whom ultimately contributed essays to the finished book. The anthology consists of eight essays (one by each of the editors is included) and centers on depictions and the significance of the figure of Venus in the history of art. I like very much the idea of these scholars proposing, encouraging, and influencing each other’s work as an ongoing project, and I believe that the cohesiveness and internal commentary of this volume reflects the strong support this group gave its members.

Venus is discussed in this volume as a ubiquitous trope in both visual and rhetorical terms. The goddess asserts so strong a presence from antiquity to the present that her “objectness” intrudes into any effort to see her merely as another subject in the history of art. I was surprised (probably I should not admit this ignorance) to discover that the Venus de Milo, carved in the second century B.C., was discovered as late as 1820 by a Greek peasant on the island of Melos (1). It is difficult, certainly, to imagine a history of art without this familiar image. Since its discovery, the editors argue in their clear and provocative introduction (Chapter 1), the motif of Venus has emerged for art historians, collectors, and artists as a complex locus of powerful underlying concerns in art history. First among these concerns is the suggestion that artistic creation functions as an undulating reflection of both parental and libidinal devotion.

Venus, Arscott and Scott propose, is more than simply a subject in visual culture because she provides an opportunity for artists to reveal a link between aesthetic practice and erotic devotion. As the editors explain, “Artistic allusions to Venus invite us to see art itself as cosubstantial with the body of the goddess: seductive in its contours, color, texture or surface, irresistibly inciting feelings of pleasurable excitation” (5). All the essays in this volume, arranged chronologically from the Renaissance to the twentieth century, explore the intricacies of Venus’s codification, worship, description, collection, and display in Western culture. Each writer looks at specific examples of the way in which Venus represents intersections of desire and self-denial, pleasure and pain, pride and shame, female power and feminine ambivalence.

These essays (mentioned below in their order of appearance) offer an analysis of visual imagery seen now through the lens of gender issues in order to highlight the ways in which sex, sexuality, gender, and social roles affect the production and reception of art. Patricia Rubin discusses the role of Neoplatonic theory in Renaissance artists’ and writers’ attempts to justify their sexually powerful depictions of the female body as “virtuous and praiseworthy, for each follows a divine image” (30). Joanna Woodall follows a similar path in her essay on seventeenth-century Dutch images of Venus, which, she argues, represent “an erotic underweaving of the heavenly realm of the spirit with the earthly, material body” (39). Katie Scott analyzes extensively a 1750 sculpture of Cupid by Bouchardon, asserting that “Cupid, in Bouchardon’s representation, was, I shall argue, both a mask for her and an extension of her: an active, phallic Venus” (71).

Jennifer Shaw discusses the role of Venus in the Salon of 1863, expanding on many of the themes examined by Bram Dijkstra in his Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin-de-Siecle Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), and focuses specifically on nineteenth-century masculine fears of female sexuality and reproductivity. Arscott investigates the myth of Pygmalion and Galatea and describes “the erotic drama associated with the creative process” (109). Her exploration of the relationship between male artist and female subject highlights the complexity of gender roles in the creation of both literary and visual images of Venus/Galatea. Shulamith Behr writes about the paintings and career of the German Expressionist artist Marianne Werefkin, questioning modernism’s insistence on a firm masculine/feminine duality that permits little tolerance of variation in individual artistic approaches to sexuality and gender. Tag Gronberg ponders the relationship between Robert Delaunay and the Eiffel Tower – Robert’s “Eve future,” according to Sonia Delaunay (146) – analyzing the erotic components of Robert’s and Blaise Cendrars’s relationship with that monument and finding its source in mechanics, desire, and “feminine allure” (147). The volume concludes with an essay in which Sarah Wilson looks at the flip side of Venus’s symbolization of the female body: Venus as a man. She details the various elements of homosexuality, cross-dressing, and hermaphroditism in Rachilde’s late nineteenth-century French novel, Monsieur Venus, republished in 1977. This novel caught the attention of French artist Michel Journiac, who used it as his inspiration for sculptures representing “phallic woman and bride of Christ” (159–60).

One of the most pleasing aspects of this book is that while many of the contributors proceed from a semiotic and in some cases a semiotic and psychoanalytic point of view, their arguments are not obfuscated with impossible-to-decipher language. The complex Freudian, Kleinian, and Lacanian issues with regard to identity and gender are put forth clearly, and their relationship to the visual imagery and textual analysis convincing and well argued.

At its best (I note especially the contributions here by the two editors and the essays by Shaw and Behr), the writing in this excellent anthology ranks among the highest-quality feminist interventions in art history. I say this because the writers explore topics of great interest to feminists: the relationship between gender and art, the representation of femininity and the female body in aesthetic practice, and the ways in which such representations have been produced and analyzed in the past. I am intrigued, therefore, by the notable absence in these essays (especially in the introductory first chapter, where one might expect an indication of the methodology or politics underlying the project) of the terms “feminism” and “feminist.” A quick look at the index for Manifestations of Venus indicates only two instances of “feminism,” and both appear only as references to other sources. Such an absence is indicative, perhaps, of the contemporary unpopularity of these terms and/or the reluctance of the editors and other contributors to be allied with whatever group or ideology they see as defined by these terms. Yet how is a feminist art history, or the presence of feminism in the practice of art history (both phrases aiming to avoid a totalizing or homogeneous presentation of what is a varied, heterogeneous, and sometimes internally contradictory politics) distinct from the work represented by this anthology? While many prominent feminist art historians are referred to in notes and in the bibliography (scholars like Whitney Chadwick, Katy Deepwell, Carol Armstrong, Nanette Solomon, and Abigail Solomon-Godeau, for example), the specificity of their feminist projects remains below the surface.

For me, the failure of the essays to acknowledge their intrinsic feminist nature has the unfortunate effect of separating this excellent project from its explicitly feminist predecessors. Ongoing projects such as Norma Broude and Mary Garrard’s groundbreaking series of anthologies, beginning with Feminism and Art History (New York: Harper and Row, 1982), provided the basis and the example for anthologies like the one considered here, yet the foundational nature of feminist politics is not addressed in Manifestations of Venus. New books appear regularly that discuss the intersections of gender issues and art (as this volume does) and do acknowledge their ties to the feminist movement (I am thinking in particular of a recent volume, Art and Feminism by Peggy Phelan and Helena Reckitt (London: Phaidon, 2001). Perhaps the term “gender,” which is used extensively by many of the essayists, serves as a substitute that can reflect feminist concerns without invoking the lightning-rod word itself.

This issue aside, Manifestations of Venus is a rewarding, readable, and closely analyzed collection of essays by a diverse group of writers. The essays are supported by substantial notes (they account for fifty of the 233 pages of this volume), as well as by a selected bibliography. The index is somewhat sparse (neither Pygmalion nor Galatea appear, although both are discussed fully in the text, for example). The illustrations, though all black and white, are of excellent resolution and complement the text well.

Kristen Frederickson
independent art historian and critic