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There is no debate that today’s civilization is obsessed with the human body. Plastic surgery exists to perfect the flaws people find with their bodies. Make-up exists to disguise imperfections and beautify. Exercise has become less about health and more and more about improving physical appearance. So it is safe to say that nowadays society focuses on beauty and obtaining the ideal, perfect silhouette, but people have focused on the body to the point of obsession almost since the beginning of time.
This is known today because the human body has been a major theme in artwork for hundreds upon thousands of centuries.
Throughout time, different cultures have portrayed the human body in a myriad of fashions through the use of art. Certain body parts may be emphasized or concealed, some artworks show bodies in a more idealistic or surrealistic manner, as opposed to a realistic manner, and vice versa.
Although there are countless works of art that focus on the human body, there are five in particular that show how various cultures of varying time periods, portray the human body: the Venus of Willendorf, the Woman from Syros, Menkaure and Khamerernebty, the Snake Goddess, and Weary Herakles.
The first work of art that focuses on the human body is from the Paleolithic Age, dates from 28,000 to 25,000 BCE, and is known as the Venus of Willendorf.
It was given this name after its discovery in Willendorf, Austria. Made of limestone and at a mere four and a half inches high, the Venus of Willendorf was thought to have been a talisman. A talisman is a small figure believed to have magic powers and to transfer its magic to those who possess it. Although small in stature, this work of art showcases exaggerated body parts of a nude woman.
The breasts and stomach – with arms perched atop – are round and pronounced, and the pubic area is clearly defined. The ball-like shapes of the body are due in part to the sculptor’s response to the natural shape of the limestone that was chosen for carving, but mainly because these anatomical exaggerations suggest that the Venus of Willendorf served as a fertility image. This is suggested of the tiny figurine because the body parts that are exaggerated are typical Paleolithic representations f women, whose child-bearing capabilities ensured the survival of the species. It is rather obvious that, due to its disproportionate shape, the sculptor of the Venus of Willendorf was not concerned with realism or naturalism. This female figurine is an idealization in the eyes of people from the Old Stone Age; they saw the ideal woman as a fertile woman and the anatomical exaggerations represent the features a fertile woman should have. The lack of facial features and the simple representation of hair show that the face was not an important part of the body.
It also emphasizes and reinforces the fact that people from the Paleolithic Era were concerned with the fertility of a woman and saw beauty in signs of fertility, not in their faces or hairstyles. Such a stress of particular features shows that the human body is a main theme in the Venus of Willendorf. This theme is not only apparent in the tiny Willendorf figure, however. A second work of art that represents the human figure is the Woman from Syros. Its name originates from its discovery sometime between 2,500 and 2,300 BCE in Syros, Greece, now modern day Crete.
Though larger in size than the Venus of Willendorf, the Woman from Syros stands only at one foot, six inches and is made of marble. It is assumed that it was meant to lay flat on a surface because it is only half an inch thick. It is also a figure of a nude woman, but the Woman from Syros is in no way round in shape like the Venus of Willendorf. The sculptor of the Woman from Syros rendered the body schematically in a series of triangles. Its body tapers from top to bottom; from an exceptionally board shoulder line to tiny feet.
The breasts and pubic are clearly defined, the former with protruding triangles and the latter being etched in. There are no facial features save for the nose, created by making another geometric shaped protrusion. The Woman from Syros’ arms are folded across its abdomen. Its stomach is slightly swollen, suggesting pregnancy. This is a sign that this figure was also a fertility image. Like the Venus of Willendorf, the Woman from Syros’ focus is strictly on the body, specifically the human body.
The parts of the body that define a female, such as the breasts and pubic area are clearly emphasized on the figurine, though not in a realistic or natural manner. The highly geometric pattern of the Woman from Syros shows the simplicity and cleanness of Cycladic art, but more importantly show how the theme of the human body remained prevalent in artwork as time progressed. The next work of art, Menkaure and Khamerernebty, are shares the theme of the human body.
Made of greywacke and dating between 2,490 and 2,472 BCE, Menkaure and Khamerernebty is larger than either of the two former works of art, standing at four feet, six and a half inches tall. From Gizeh, Egypt, during the Fourth Dynasty, this double portrait of Menkaure and his wife displays the conventional postures used for statues designated as substitute homes for the Egyptian ka, known as uscheptes. The figures are still connected to the stone they were made from, classifying this artwork as a high-relief sculpture. Menkaure’s pose is rigidly frontal with the arms hanging straight down and close to his well-built body.
His hands are clenched into fist with the thumbs facing forward. His left leg is slightly ahead of the right, but there is no shift in the angle of the hips to correspond to the uneven distribution of weight. This is ironic because the position of his legs is a pose that humans naturally gave, but the disregard of weight shift in the sculpture is highly unnatural. Menkaure’s wife, assumed to Khamerernebty, stands in a similar position to her husband. Her right arm encircles his waist while her left hand rests on his right arm above the elbow.
This frozen stereotypical gesture indicates their marital status. Both of the figures have stoic, frozen faces that are looking straight ahead. The artist’s intent was not to accurately portray living figures, but to illustrate the timeless nature of the stone statue. These figures are far from an accurate depiction of Menkaure and his wife. They were created to fit the idealization of the human body according to Egyptian standards. The human body is a major theme in Menkaure and Khamerernebty because the figures focus on the ideal bodies desired by the Egyptians.
It also shows that as time progressed, the importance of fertility decreased while the importance of portraying the ideal body type increased all the while keeping the human body the main focus. The Snake Goddess is a Minoan work of art whose theme is also the human body. It was created around 1,600 BCE in Knossos, Greece, now modern day Crete. Made of faience, as low-fired opaque glasslike silicate, the figure is one foot, one and a half inches high. It has been argued that the Snake Goddess represents a priestess, but it is more likely that it is a bare-breasted goddess.
She holds a snake in each hand and has a feline on her head, both signifying her power over the animal kingdom. The frontality of the figure is reminiscent of Egyptian and Near Eastern statuary. However, the costume, with its open bodice and flounced skirt, is characteristic of Minoan culture. The prominently exposed breasts suggest that the Snake Goddess stands in a long line of prehistoric fertility images usually considered divinity. During this time period, the Minoans were a maternal society. Women’s breasts were exposed because they were a symbol of beauty and power.
The statue’s waist is so small because Minoan women’s waists were small. This was because when they were young Minoan females, they had a metal ring soldered around their waists to make sure that they stayed small and grew to have an hourglass figure; this was the ideal body shape for Minoan women. If the statuette does indeed represent a goddess, then it is an example of how humans fashion their gods in their own image. The human body is a major theme in the Snake Goddess because it is a representation of the Minoan ideal of the female body.
Although Minoan women were essentially forced into having the body shape that the Snake Goddess has, the statuette is still not a realistic representation of the human body because it is show how Minoan women should look. The final work of art that focuses on the human body is not of a woman, but rather a man and is known as Weary Herakles. The original Weary Herakles was created by the sculptor Lysippos of Sikyon around 320 BCE and was made of bronze. Unfortunately, the original copy of the sculpture was lost, but a Roman copy was made. This copy is made of marble and stands at a colossal ten feet, five inches high.
The sculpture is a portrayal of Herakles after he obtained the golden apple of the Hesperides. He is sculpted with exaggerated muscular development and is shown leaning on his club for support. His face shows signs of pain and weariness. This is ironic because the mythological strongman looks so muscular and powerful with his large size and his defined and toned body that it is surprising that such a man could be tired and weak. This artwork is different from the four others in that save for its size, it is very realistic looking; so much to the point where the viewer can almost see Herakles breathing heavily.
Weary Herakles also looks realistic because he is not stiff like the other works of art; he is standing in a natural, human position and is made even more human by the fact that his body language and facial expression radiates signs of fatigue. Although the sculpture is very realistic, his figure is still sculpted to match the Greek’s idea of what the ideal body type is like. Weary Herakles is an eloquent testimony to the Late Classical sculptor’s interest in humanizing the great gods and heroes of the Greeks.
This entire sculpture is a focus on the human form from its facial expressions and arm gestures to its anatomical accuracy and contrapposto position. The human body has been a focus, nay an obsession of homosapiens since the dawn of time. From Prehistoric times up to today, the human form has been a major theme of countless amounts of artwork. Whether portrayed in a realistic or unnatural manner, different cultures have explored the human body in a vast amount of ways through the use of art. It is only certain that as societies become more and more infatuated with the human form, it will remain a prevalent theme and dominate the world of art.