Venus Impudique and Pudica

So many prehistoric statuettes are nicknamed “Venus” (the most popular being the “Venus of Willendorf“) that I’ve never given much thought to that title.  I guess that assumed that it was a cute reference to the fact that the statuettes were female. I recently learned, however, that the name “Venus” was first used as a tongue-in-cheek comment.  In 1864, the Marquis Paul de Vibraye wittily described a paleolithic ivory statuette of a female figure (shown right, c. 14,000 BC, from Laugerie-Basse, Vezerey in Dordogne) as a Venus impudique” (“immodest Venus”).  Paul de Vibraye chose the title “Venus impudique” to suggest that the prehistoric statuette makes no attempt to hide her sexuality, in contrast to the popular convention of the “Venus pudica” (modest Venus), which shows the goddess of love attempting to conceal her breasts and pubic area.

There are many versions of the “Venus pudica,” most notably the Venus de Medici (shown left, 1st century B.C. copy) and Praxiteles’ Venus of Knidos (original of c.350-340 BC).  If you are interested, you can read more about the Venus pudica convention here, and see even more examples here.

It’s interesting to think about how the nickname “Venus” has affected the perception of prehistoric statuettes like the Venus of Willendorf.  Christopher L. C. E. Whitcombe explains several ways that perception is altered in this short essay, and I wanted to mention two them here:

  • The “Venus” title encourages people to compare prehistoric art to the artistic standards and ideals that were upheld in Greek, Roman, and Renaissance art.  Since these artistic ideals were (and are) so highly valued in Western society, the “Venus” statues are judged by their factors of being “different” from these ideals (instead of being examined on their own terms).
  • The term “Venus” also calls for a comparison between prehistoric and Greek culture.  When such a comparison is made, the prehistoric art becomes more “primal” and sexually unrestrained, since the Greek art suggests self-awareness and “civilized” conventions of propriety.  Obviously, such a comparison is dangerous, since it suggests certain things about prehistoric life which cannot be proven. 

Can you think of more reasons why “Venus” is a problematic nickname to use?  Do you have a favorite “Venus” statuette?

  • phin says:

    I think one of the major problems with naming the figurines "Venus" was addressed in your last blog; that it indicates to the layman that historians consider these objects to be renditions of goddesses. Which is something that we cannot entirely conclude from the archaeological record. No?

  • heidenkind says:

    My favorite prehistoric Venus is probably the Venus of Laussel, but it's hard to choose. The Venus of Brassempouy and the Venus of Lespugue are also very cool.

  • H Niyazi says:

    I don't think it's a big deal. This description is prevalent in Western Art & Archaeology because the word 'Venus' has become synonymous with feminine beauty.

    Venus herself was a Roman concept, but was the distillation of Aphrodite, Isis and some other regional traditions thrown in.

    As for lay persons,
    I consider myself a lay person, and am not that fussed! Most people who think of 'Venus' will eventually recount the famous 'Shocking Blue' track from 1970. In his TV special on Botticelli's Venus, Waldemar Januszcak even used "I'm your fire, at your desire" in his description of the work.

    Hence, when the 5000 year old Orkney Venus in Scotland was mentioned recently, there was a brief second of "Hey thats not right – The Romans werent…." but then brain re-adjusts :)

    H

  • GermyB says:

    I think that on a basic level, the general public understands that "Venus" is associated with feminine beauty. So, a sculpture dubbed a "Venus" is assumed to represent the creator's vision of idealized beauty. Which seems problematic to me, or at least misleading, since the world may never know what those weird ancient people were doing with these things.

  • M says:

    Thanks for the comments! I can understand phin and GermyB's perspective about problematic aspects. I think the word "Venus" does carry those connotations of beauty and goddess, and that can be problematic. But it was also very nice to read H Niyazi's perspective. I can see what he means about how "the brain readjusts" when the name "Venus" is associated with these figurines.

    I wonder how naming these figurines "Venus" is different than naming the planet Venus in our solar system. Do the titles carry different connotations, since one refers to images with the human figure? Or perhaps there really is no difference?

    And heidenkind: I like the Venus of Lespugue, too! You've probably noticed that I mentioned it in my most recent post.

  • e says:

    I agree with the comments here: I think the general public associates "Venus" with beauty and something very feminine. It actually made me think of all the other things that are given the title of "Venus" in our modern world and the one that I thought of first was the razor blade for women called "Venus". How interesting that it has become such a symbol for all things feminine including hair removal products. Wouldn't those who started to coin the term be very surprised?

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.