Everything Old is Vogue Again

“The past is regarded as instrumental to the formation of modernity, of modern times, in the same way that (visual) quotes from the ancient account for the charm and potential of fashion.”

A Visit to the Gallery

 This quote from Ulrich Lehman underscores the UMMA painting A Visit to the Gallery by Pier Celestino Gilardi. In the painting, a group of clothed Victorian women look at a first century marble nude that stands elevated on a pedestal in an elaborately decorated space. The women sit on a couch looking up at the statue and pointing at it, but they do not approach it. In the eyes of the elaborately clothed women, the Venus is an idealized figure from the ambiguous age of antiquity. The deep space of the painting and the visual contrasts between the Victorian women and the Venus hint at a temporal and fashionable distance.

As viewers, we may be tempted to do the same when viewing classical statues. But underneath the obvious temporal, spatial, and nude-clothed differences between the Victorians and Venus there are also similarities. In 2012, the University of Modena carried out an investigation into the statue and uncovered her colorful past.

What they found has changed my view of pristine classical sculptures forever. Far from being a white-washed and bland conglomeration of classical eras, the Venus represents specific trends in fashions and aesthetics that may have produced a different reaction from the Victorian crowd, had they been able to see her in her original state. The University of Modena uncovered layers of makeup, gold hair paint, and earrings.

The gaudy accessories that the Venus sculpture once wore in her heyday would have been used for the same reason of the Victorian women or of any pop star today; namely to elevate her social status and call attention to certain areas of her body.

Kylie Minogue in concert, dressed as Venus emerging from the sea

The makeup of the Venus also once played a large part in her presentation and eroticism. The same scholars that uncovered her ancient jewelry also discovered a layer of bright red paint on her lips and gold paint on her hair. The gold and red would have drawn any viewer’s eye to her head (much like the ostrich feather on the hat of the women on the right).

Venus’s hands are placed on erogenous zones, including her breast and pubic area. In a seeming attempt to cover up her body, she only calls attention to the greatest points of visual impact.

The Victorian women of the Gilardi painting also call attention to evocative areas. With their erect postures (seen in both the seated and standing figures) the women make sure that the elaborate ruffles on their chest and buttocks can clearly be seen. One woman even crosses her legs while seated, enabling her to show a small portion of her ankle. Venus similarly uses her legs to create an exaggerated crook at her waist and reveal an enticing gap between her thighs.

It is always easy for us as modern spectators to perceive the white, podium-displayed visuals of an older era and immediately decide that it bears no connections to one’s own like the distanced women in Gilardi’s painting with their pointed fingers and sly smiles sent in the direction of Venus’s high podium.

But by automatically distancing ourselves from an era without considering its original context we limit ourselves to a singular idea of beauty from antiquity. If the group of Victorian women had seen Venus in her original fashionable state, they would most likely have different reactions to this goddess. I know I will every time I view white antique statues from now on.

Sarah Ogar

A culture-addict who has dabbled in film production, screen writing, stand-up comedy, theater production, and much more.

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