by Rafaella Hadjiyiangou
As published in In Focus Vol. 11, No. 4, December 2014
The idea of the male gazing at a female model, as was often the case, contributes towards the unwillingness of the female to look directly towards her viewer. In Venus’s case, she is not ashamed to look at her viewer directly because it allows her to communicate her assertiveness towards her nude body. The model named after Venus leaves connotations of eroticism and shamelessness in the background. Without shunning the background as of no importance to the interpretation of the painting, this article explores the three stages of semi – privateness; the ideas of the ‘open’ and ‘close’ are literally depicted in the painting.
The painting exploits three stages of semi – privateness. That is to say, as a viewer one distinguishes three layers in which particular objects are partly hidden or even hide things from the recipient’s view. The layers offer a sense of privateness characterised by confidentiality and partial concealment from the public view. The first layer would be that of the window which obstructs the direct view from the outside to the inside and vice versa. The objects used as hiding ornaments are the Ionic column1 and the plant pot. The second stage of semi – privateness is the partially open/closed wall which distinguishes the reclining Venus from the background. In its attempt to divide the background from the main theme of the painting, it conceals to some extent part of the background room and replaces it with Venus. Venus is then enclosed in layers of objects just like Ovid’s Diana is enclosed within layers of objects. In Ovid’s words: “Now picture a valley, dense with pine and tapering cypress, called Gargaphie, sacred haunt of the huntress Diana; there, in a secret corner, a cave surrounded by woodland, owing nothing to human artifice.”2 Even though Diana is enclosed within a valley which is clothed in hanging woods of pine and cypress, Venus is enclosed within a more tangible environment: that of walls and windows. And just like Actaeon, the viewer is also punished by Venus’s enigmatic yet inviting look. The viewer’s punishment comes in the form of ambiguity since they cannot be sure whether Venus is indeed letting her viewer come closer to her bodily or spiritually. This brings us to the third stage of semi – privateness: Venus’s body suggests an ambiguous body language marked by two distinct parts (see figure 1). The first one being her seductive gaze that looks directly towards the viewer and the second, her hand placed in a certain position that encourages the hiding of her genitalia. Venus’s body then becomes an object of embodied ambivalence due to the fact that the upper part of her body suggests a playful and comfortable mode, whereas the lower part of her body is more reserved and almost hidden. The fact that her hand is placed in that position combined with the darker shades of black, suggests that the hiding has been done with the consent of both the painter and the model. Moreover, the hiding of her right leg behind her left leg, accompanies the hand in hiding parts of her body. Wishing not to expose much of the skin and adding to the layers of semi – privateness, the painter also conveys a sense of mystery in not showing too much. The painting and the figure itself are automatically made more interesting and (even) engaging by Venus not showing too much. She is, nevertheless, showing enough to tease the recipient’s perception.
Is she truly Venus? Is she representing Venus as a goddess or is she an anthropomorphic depiction of Venus? She is Venus because she lacks self – consciousness while she lays comfortably on the sofa. The upper part of her body, the comfortable zone, suggests that Venus is her skin. While the skin is the surface you make direct contact with the world, Venus makes direct contact only through her gaze. Venus’s gaze is the only means of communication she can make because of the gap between the language which makes communication of mortals and immortals. There is no direct language which makes communication between Gods and mortals possible, therefore Venus’s gaze essentially bridges the gap between them.
A religious conception of the body says that the female was created out of the male’s side. This way, establishment of equality between the two genders is manifest. Although the model depicted in the painting has female features, the fact that she is a Goddess is marked by the lack of masculine characteristics in her body. Her body is depicted as a tangible and fragile object that lacks muscles and the division of limbs as a result of her status as a Goddess. Her unearthliness is explicitly manifest through her appearance as a flawless mass for, if muscles were inserted in her body, they would only disintegrate their perfection.
Venus is placed in a woman’s body to remind her viewers that she is also a female that demands the amount of respect accorded to a Goddess. Respect is obtained from the attitude she arouses in her viewers and that derives from how much she will expose herself to her viewers. Gill Saunders argues that ‘the objectification and fragmentation of women’s bodies is perhaps an inevitable corollary of women’s status in Western Society and thus in Western art (…) The woman is the passive object, man the analytical creator projecting his vision, his tastes, his desires, his views of the world onto her body. Hence the woman’s body is not accorded the respect for its wholeness that the male nude receives.’3 Titian, though, gives Venus a dynamic look that assertively collects the respect she deserves (despite her nudity) rather than receiving it from her viewers. By gazing directly at the viewer Venus automatically erases feelings of shame or guilt she may have communicated if she were hiding her face from the public. Therefore Venus’s respect towards herself is communicated through her gaze at her viewers. Then the viewers themselves, clearly influenced by her gaze, are more likely to respond to her gaze with a (much) more positive outcome. Venus’s beauty is incorporated in her nude body, in her engaging look as well as the flowers and jewels she is wearing. She is Venus because of her relaxed attitude towards nudity and her enigmatic look that conveys eroticism and suggestiveness. She manifests no feelings of guilt or shame in the upper part of her body. Moreover, she eloquently uses her body to make contact with her male recipient: with the demure look and flowers in her hand, she encourages suggestiveness whereas, her hand between her thighs (lower part of her body, the uncomfortable zone) erases all feelings of eroticism and encourages not so much modesty, as reservedness. This, I believe, not only reminds us that Venus is a female but rather as a female she has certain limitations. She deliberately places her hand between her thighs to remind her male recipient of the thin line between suggestiveness and inappropriateness. Her limitations are, maybe, imposed on her by the fact that she is a female and some parts are meant to be kept away from the public eye. Even though she refrains from showing too much of her genitalia, she is, however, substituting it them with the flowers she is holding. The substitution of her genitalia with a bunch of flowers and other ornamental objects such as earrings and a bracelet add to the ambiguity because they remind the viewer of the imprecise body language. The model is depicted as the ideal female which combines both eroticism suggested by Venus and mischievous modesty suggested by the flowers.
Venus’s three layers of semi–privateness offer an account of how bodily exposure can be interpreted as a sign of weakness towards the female or rather as a teaser for the male gazer. In addition, the semi – privateness offers limitations to both the viewer and Venus. For Venus, semi – privateness is a way of communicating her femininity. The limitations are manifest in Venus’s ambiguous body language and that body language is divided between two distinct zones: the comfortable and uncomfortable zone. The comfortable zone expresses the femininity and eroticism in Venus as well as the embodiment of the Goddess of love in the model, while the uncomfortable zone depicts the female as often reserved and reluctant in showing too much. The painter offers a physical praise towards the female because the combination of both zones make up an ideal female creation. An almost, if not completely, idolatrous depiction of the female body with soft, flawless skin. An almost, if not, perfect body which is highly feminised with no masculine features.
1.The column is identified as an Ionic column from the attic round base and the slender shaft throughout its length
2. Ovid, trans. David Raeburn, ‘Book II’, in Ovid Metamorphoses: A New Verse Translation, (London: Penguin Books Ltd, 2004) p. 100
3. Saunders Gill, ‘The Fetishised female’, in The Nude: A New Perspective, (London: The Herbert Press, 1989) p. 71
• Ovid, Ovid’s Metamorphoses: A new verse translation, trans. by David Raeburn (London: Penguin Books Ltd, 2004)
• Saunders Gill, The Nude: A New Perspective (London: London: The Herbert Press, 1989).
• Titian, Venus of Urbino () <http://www.uffizi.org/artworks/venus-of-urbino-by-titian/> [accessed 16 February 2013].