Rimbaud’s Ulcerated Venus: How Sexuality Changes Over History
Where does beauty come from? In what form does it exist? Is it finite? Elemental?
According to the Ancient Greeks, beauty was born off the coast of Cyprus.
When Cronus, the leader of the Titans and notorious bad boy of the pre-Olympian Gods, castrated his father, Uranus, he threw his testicles into the sea, and from the bubbling spume came Aphrodite:
beauty and love personified. Yeats wrote ‘love has pitched its mansion in the place of excrement’.
Apparently, beauty wasn’t too far off.
Aphrodite is an idea. A useful fiction. A distillation of everything we consider beautiful and seductive. It takes a healthy ego to attempt to capture her image by hand but fortunately, history has produced no shortage of these types. Consider Botticelli’s, The Birth of Venus, where a naked Venus, or Aphrodite, hitches a ride on a scallop shell. Her voluptuous, chiseled frame stands in contrast to the partially-clothed yet somehow more naked subject of Rubens’ Venus in Front of the Mirror.
Now, no work of art is a complete success. Nietzsche would tell you the artist ‘never quite expresses what [they] would really like to express’, but it’s the pursuit that wins us over. I’d say Botticelli is one
exception. His Venus not only succeeded in its beauty, but it continues to guide what beauty means for us today.
Outside the painting world, the work has inspired, for example, Andy Warhol’s ‘Details of Renaissance Portraits’ series, Uma Thurman’s portrayal of Botticelli’s Venus in the 1988 film The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, a Beyonce pregnancy photo shoot, Bond Girl Honey Rider’s iconic beach walk in Dr. No (1962), two New Yorker Magazine covers and Lady Gaga’s 2013 Artpop album cover and music video for her multi-platinum hit, Applause (2013). Surely, then, its status as a pillar of beauty is beyond debate. Right? Right?
Not according to Arthur Rimbaud, the highly-influential, 19th Century poet. More than a half- millennia after Botticelli and Rubens took to canvas, Rimbaud, in his Venus Anadyomene described Botticelli’s Venus as having ‘fat under the skin [which] appears in slabs...her spine is a bit red; the whole thing has a smell’. Her nudity was so stark, it was hideous. He imagined her with a ‘broad rump’ and an ‘ulcer on her anus’.
Perspectives on beauty change over time. I’m sure you’ve heard that in Antiquity, full-bodied women were considered more beautiful. While this is partially true, the picture isn’t so clear. Firstly, it’s worth
remembering that for every rule there’s an exception, particularly when it comes to something as subjective as beauty. Take, for instance, Aristotle’s position that ‘short women are never beautiful’. TO him, practices like neck elongation are to be expected, but what of recent studies suggesting men are more attracted to shorter women?
Secondly, we have to consider which period and people we are referring to, since opinions on beauty differ greatly, both between cultures and within cultures over time. They change in response to the environment and social conditions. To illustrate, consider the evolution of beauty in Ancient China. When its people were nomadic and social networks were small and relatively simple, beauty was buxom (AKA curvy, large-breasted). Cave paintings and sculptures represent ideal women with large, round breasts and generous curves. It was a sign of prosperity and fertility.
Once the nomads settled and long-term agriculture took hold, complex social structures were formed and beauty became divorced from practicality. Suddenly, the beautiful woman was meek and submissive. It was only a matter of time before female servility was reflected in dress and stature. The ideal wife was petite, small of mouth and feet and narrow of waist. You might have read about foot-binding, the gradual breaking of feet and toes so that they appeared smaller and frailer: beauty is, and beauty was, pain.
This cycle repeats time and again. For instance, while bronzer and self-tanning lotions fly off the shelves across London, consider how when the House of Tudor reigned supreme, women wore ceruse, a whitening, lead-based makeup. It’s also true that some cultures consider beauty as primarily masculine, as was the case with the Ancient Greeks. For Nietzsche, animals see men as ineffectual objects of idle beauty. Beauty is a dialogue, it informs and is informed.
On 7 February 1497 a bonfire roared in the center of Florence, Italy. The arson? A charismatic monk. Itsfuel? A renaissance masterpiece or two. It’s said that Botticelli, convinced his art was liable to corrupt the mind and soul, would have burned The Birth of Venus, had it not been stored outside Florence at the Medici’s Villa de Castello. So profound were the effects of his, and similar, pictures of beauty that its audiences were at risk of abandoning their religious values in pursuit of the ‘vanities’ suggested by the great works.
Beauty holds a certain power. It plays a role in society; it holds a mirror to it and it’s shaped by it. As wechange, beauty too must change. For Plato, contemplation of physical beauty brings us closer to the divine. On the other hand, Tolstoy warns us of its false promise, its ability to distort and confuse.
Either way, our relationship with beauty is dynamic.
Works of old fall in and out of vogue, denim-on-denim is trendy, then outdated, then retro-chique, then overdone. Beauty is ephemeral and as we trace its evolution, we come to understand more about our own.
Isn’t that beautiful?
Apr 1, 2023