Art history is full of repetition, of artists recreating famous works from other artists, and of artists recreating pieces as a statement on the times that they were living in, or just as a way to share their perspective with the world. In art school, we even had assignments where we were told to replicate a given work. Or assignments where we were told to put our own spin on our favorite piece. It’s super, super common. Yet, I see people on Facebook arguing about these sorts of things often. But hey, people will argue about anything, especially on social media!
So, here’s a friendly reminder that it’s always been common, acceptable, and even expected in art history to recreate images in a way that subverts, challenges, or otherwise changes the overall messages and implications of the original art piece. Art is, and has always been, a means of communicating. Be it social commentary (such as the statue of Medusa that prompted this), religious expression (like the Notre Dame Cathedral), declarations of political power (like North Korean propaganda posters), or even just art for art’s sake (because it’s okay to just enjoy beauty), art has always existed in many forms and for many purposes. Retelling stories is a tradition so old that even Ovid did it. Referencing famous artworks is a tradition. Creating artwork based on Greek/Roman myth as allegory is a long-standing tradition as well.
In the Beginning, there was Aphrodite of Knidos
Consider the Aphrodite of Knidos(2th Century), which is referenced by Titian in his Venus of Urbino(1538), who’s composition is then referenced by Manet in his Venus of Olympia(1865). There’s tons of other artworks inspired by these 3 examples as well, but for now let’s just focus on these 3.
The original Aphrodite of Knidos was created as a religious sculpture, but was eventually recreated and used as an object of voyeuristic decoration due to it being the first statue depicting female nudity in the Western World.
Her pose, both unabashed and yet covering herself for modesty’s sake, creates a scene in which the viewer can gaze at her nakedness undetected and unabashed, turning her into an object of voyeuristic pleasure.
Originally, the story goes that to see the goddess in a state of undress would result in the viewer being torn apart by dogs. As a religious sculpture, it would give the viewer the chance to venerate the goddess while she’s at her most vulnerable; naked but not ashamed. After it’s transition into a sculpture of decoration, as opposed to veneration, it can be assumed that the viewer is watching Aphrodite not out of veneration, but as a peeping tom. The voyeuristic intent of this sculpture as decoration is further emphasized in Titian’s painting, which emulates her same pose but in a reclining position.
the Indirect vs Direct Gaze
In the statue, Aphrodite is depicted in a scenario where she doesn’t know that she’s being seen by anyone, let alone us(the viewers). In the painting, she’s looking out towards the viewer, but her gaze is indirect, almost inviting. She’s there purely for the viewer’s pleasure.
This voyeurism is directly challenged by Manet, who has his goddess looking directly out at the viewer, thus taking away the scopophilic nature of the previous artworks. Additionally, the model he used for his Venus was a well known sex worker, thus challenging social conventions that allowed for nudity in artwork due to the allegorical nature of the subject matter.
Before, Venus wasn’t really a naked woman; she was a representation of love, beauty, and desire. So to use a well-known prostitute as a model for those attributes directly calls out the obviously pornographic intent of many of the (non-religious) depictions of Aphrodite/Venus of previous artworks. Not to mention how he changed the dog, a symbol of loyalty, with a black cat, a symbol of both bad luck and of disloyalty/promiscuousness. And then there’s the social commentary of replacing the white servant in the background with a black servant in the foreground, which I’m simply not knowledgeable enough to really comment on. But I’d recommend looking into it for yourself, because it really is interesting to read about!
Check out this piece on Manet’s Venus of Olympia for a deeper analysis of the racial implications of the painting, as well as a discussion about other artworks that this painting inspired.
Retelling Familiar Stories
Needless to say, variations on any given theme have always been present in art history. I was inspired to write this short essay after seeing outrage on Facebook about the Medusa statue mentioned earlier, and how it was cheap and lazy and downright inaccurate for the artist to ever attempt to retell such a classic story. So, I really, absolutely must ask, why exactly should people stop the tradition of referencing historical art pieces, retelling stories, and using art as a means of social commentary?
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