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VENUS IN DISPUTE!

When I was flipping through Taschen's "What Great Paintings Say" to look for a painting that would start my day, I caught sight of a familiar colour palette of beige, pale red, and turquoise, that could only be Botticelli's Birth of Venus. I stopped and looked up at the wall before my desk, and it hung there the painting's image. It has always been the painting I go to for aesthetic pleasure, nothing more or less, and the source of my invisible eye-roll when someone (whom, poor soul, I immediately label as an amateur) says it is their favourite work of art. I never thought it was sophisticated enough to receive the same magnitude of my reverence as the other artworks by, for example, Francisco Goya or Édouard Manet. So, out of curiosity and conscience to abandon my culpable prejudice, I read the chapter on Birth of Venus: Fairest Daughter of Heaven and Waves.



What struck me the most was the scandalous history the artwork - or rather, its subject - had endured. Venus, or Aphrodite in its Greek counterpart, was the goddess of love and beauty and was held in high regard by Greek and Roman civilisation. With the triumph of Christianity, however, the goddess fell from grace and became the symbol of sinful lust in the Middle Ages. Yet, her beauty seemed to be universal and timeless despite the religious-societal condemnation, for when an antique statue of Venus was excavated in the neighbouring town of Siena, citizens were enchanted by it and placed it on the town well, collectively revering the goddess. When the war afflicted the town, the same citizens reversed their attitude dramatically, furiously stating that "since idolatry is forbidden by our faith, there can surely be no doubt who caused our misfortune," again demonising Venus as a malicious pagan spirit. Soon, the town councillors decided to smash the statue into pieces and, in an almost comical way of reprisal, buried its fragments within the precincts of Florence in the hope to bring the same misfortune upon the heads of their enemies. In the case of Birth of Venus, the artwork almost suffered the same fate as the Venus statue when the Medici family was defeated by monk Girolamo Savonarola, who ordered the burning of all "lascivious paintings" - including Botticelli's work - on a "bonfire of vanities". Botticelli later became a follower of the movement and searched for his paganist work, but missed it because of its relatively remote location. The painting was not discovered until fifty years later.


It might appear bizarre, at first glance, to demonise and bestow so much hostility and enmity on a silent, harmless statue. Yet, the act becomes unsurprising when we understand the influence and power of artwork. Intentional or not, a work of art always reveals something about the artist or the subject, thereby declaring itself like a party proclaiming its manifesto. That is why when any authoritarian regime takes power, artists become the very first groups of individuals to persecute because their ideas and expressions pose a momentous threat to the government. We observe the same phenomenon happening in Nazi Germany when modernist artworks were cleansed and artists were forced to follow the regime's requirement for the ideal subjects for art. The treatment of Birth of Venus found itself in the notorious "Exhibition of Degenerate Art" in 1937. Of course, this is not exclusive to visual art. Music, too, held tantamount power and therefore faced persecution under evil regimes. In post-WW2 Czechoslovakia, a band of young musicians named "The Plastic People of the Universe" was trialled and labelled as traitors of the state by the communist government. The only "crime" they committed was not choosing to live within a lie but to live more freely, and they transformed the message into the music they played, which, in turn, inspired many to protest against the repressive regime. The government's malicious reaction to the band highlighted the fragility and insecurity of totalitarianism underneath a robust and omnipotent facade effortlessly eroded by the presence of art.


Now, the image of the Birth of Venus on my wall is static and safe. A soft glow emanates from Venus' gentle smile, and the waves and branches of orange trees are wavering in serenity.


I think the goddess is happy that the painting is here.

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