Art Hum – Prof. Crowley Spring 2012 Assignment #1 Formal

Art Hum – Prof. Crowley
Spring 2012
Assignment #1
Formal Analysis: Marble statue of Aphrodite (~2 or 3 century B.C.)
and Reclining Naiad (1819-24)
Upon first entering the hall of Greek and Roman sculpture, it is not unlikely for one’s
gaze to be immediately drawn to the figure of Aphrodite in the distance. Poised in ethereal
perfection and luminously bathed in early afternoon sunlight, the marble statue of the Greek
goddess plays upon the eyes with undaunted sublimity. Aphrodite is calm and harmonious;
indeed, one would not guess her violent mythic origin – born of the blood of Uranus’s severed
genitals – by regarding her serene and celestial image. Rather, the representation of Aphrodite
here commands all the dignity and beauty contained within the ideal female form. Several rooms
away, in the atrium of European sculpture, a similarly sunbathed female figure beckons – though
the intonation of her draw is distinct from that of our modest goddess. Here we encounter the
statue of the Reclining Naiad, and in it another idealized representation of feminine beauty. A
naiad lies upon a feline pelt and blanket draped over a sort of rocky platform, graceful and
effortless in her undeniably nymphetic demeanor. Both statues reflect unmistakably classical
aestheticizations of the ideal female form, where naturalistic depictions of bodily fluidity and
freedom of movement are mixed with a delicate idealism. However, the distinct bodily
positioning as well as the degree and form of expressivity of each sculpture produces a distinct
spatial and conceptual relationship between the viewer and the figure, ultimately reflecting each
piece’s distinct mythical-semiotic narrative of ideal female beauty.
Several features of the Marble statue of Aphrodite denote the traditional classical style in
which the figure was made. The smoothness of the lines and overall contour of the statue, the
proportionality and weight distribution of the body, and the utter serenity of the facial expression
all demonstrate classical idealism. This embodiment of Aphrodite unambiguously marks an
idealized representation of the female form in its beauty. Simultaneously, the hyper-idealism of
the body is complicated by certain notably naturalizing elements: the folds in the stomach; the
fluidity of her form; the forward momentum denoted by the tension in the body. Aphrodite’s
raised heel and bent knee indicate a forward momentum that enlivens the figure, and the slight
forward compression of the shoulders produces a naturalizing effortlessness. Similarly, the statue
of the Reclining Naiad demonstrates the simultaneous interplay of hyper-idealism and “down-toearth,” animate naturalism. The neo-classical style of the piece is first indicated by the smooth
contours and idealized feminine proportionality of the naiad, and further elaborated by the
naturalistic curvature of the hip and spine and folding around the waist. There is tension both in
the shoulder upon which the naiad rests her weight and in the feet that playfully touch behind her
body, evoking a similar sense of being captured in a dynamic moment.
One notable point of departure between the two statues is the positioning of the bodies,
which articulate very different forms of ideal female embodiment. Aphrodite stands tall and
seems to move slightly forward while looking off into the distance. Her uprightness, fluid
forward momentum, and unmatched gaze indicate a sort of timeless transcendence. It seems she
is always moving, always arriving, and always already there. Though there is a piece of rock and
what appears to be a dolphin at her feet, a bit of natural context that might theoretically “ground”
her, the space which she occupies seems difficult to trace, and impossible to occupy. The viewer
can merely hope to observe the harmony and beauty of Aphrodite’s serene moment.
Our naiad, on the other hand, rests horizontally upon an animal skin. While there appears
to be an air of movement in her body with the twisting of her head and spine and, as previously
mentioned, the crossing of her feet, she is fundamentally “grounded” and thus seems contained
within a distinct spatial-temporal reality. The unmet gaze of the naiad is not, unlike that of
Aphrodite, does not transport her to an unimaginable and inaccessible locality; rather, it seems to
define, and perhaps playfully invites the viewer to enter, the space which she occupies (or, at the
very least, to regard her posterior). Moreover, the highly textured and explicitly bestial matter
with which she comes into contact gives the impression of an earthly and sensuous locale, in
contrast to the ethereal and transcendent realm in which we meet Aphrodite. While in our
encounter with the Greek goddess we, the viewer, can merely look, with the naiad it seems we’re
invited not only to look but perhaps even to touch (though given the extreme attentiveness of
museum security personnel, touching is not recommended). Indeed, the slight smile on the
naiad’s face marks a notable departure from the classical tradition of expressionless faces,
encouraging more of a humanistic and romantic engagement with the figure as opposed to the
reverent and distanced orientation that the representation of Aphrodite seems to foster.
The points at which each figure comes into contact with her own body further explicates
the distinct engagements with female beauty that each statue signifies. If one is to assume that
the original statue of Aphrodite – before the loss of its arms – featured the goddess in her
traditional representational positioning, with one hand covering the genital region and the other
laid across the breast (and indeed a brief glance at the descriptive placard beneath the statue
confirms this), then her positioning reflects a deliberate gesture of modesty. Aphrodite embodies
a divine and transcendent female beauty: she is graceful, harmonious, and appropriately
unattainable. In contrast, one of the naiad’s hands rests upon her head, suggesting an
unconcealed awareness of her own physicality and beauty, while the other is comfortably laid
across the head of the animal pelt, demonstrating her proximity to the corporeal world. Thus the
naiad appears to represent the beauty of female sensuality.
True to classical style, Aphrodite is represented at once as ideal and thus transcendent,
and simultaneously as a naturalistically embodied nude female captured in a single, dynamic
moment. Her body is naturalized by way of certain details such as the forward hunch of her
shoulders and inward pull of her waist, the folding of the skin around her stomach, and the
momentum implied by her lifted foot. At the same time, her distant gaze and solemn facial
expression indicate a state of godly transcendence, encouraging the viewer to regard her both as
an object of aesthetic beauty and a symbol of the divine feminine essence. The Reclining Naiad
shares certain classical features with the Marble statue of Aphrodite, such as the smoothcontoured, idealized representation of the nude female form, the distant gaze, the naturalistic
twist of the body, and the depiction of movement through the tension in the toes and spine.
However, the grounded horizontal positioning of the body upon the bed, the romantic addition of
a smile, and the playful touching of foot to foot, hand to face, and hand to feline pelt evoke an
inviting and distinctly sensual space. Thus, while both statues employ the techniques of classical
stylization in depicting ideal female beauty, their particularities generate radically different
representations of what that beauty signifies and how it is to be properly engaged.
Marble statue of Aphrodite (~2 or 3 century B.C.) – Roman copy of a Greek statue
Reclining Naiad (1819-24) – Antonio Canova