Cover image by Cathy Lomax

ARTY 46: Venus

Autumn/Winter 2023

I've been thinking about Venus for a long time. When it came to pulling this issue together I had to trace back along the spidery tentacles of my virtual Venus mind map to reconnect with references and sources. One of the most important is Catherine McCormack's Women in the Picture in which she outlines how the innumerable images of naked women throughout art history, usually shown trying to cover themseves, are in stark opposition to the (occasional) proudly naked man. She describes how Venus’s heritage as a classical goddess gives an air of respectability to depictions of naked women, who are available to be gazed upon under the guise of art appreciation. In the twentieth century this commonplace gazing culminated in the normalising of images of 'scantily clad' women in the mass media such as those on page 3 of The Sun newspaper.

Venus is the Roman version of Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty. Beyond this, in the guise of a white marble sculpture, she has come to stand for youth and beauty in a way that excludes anyone who differs from this template. This image has been adopted by cinema and the beauty industry, as an exemplar of white beauty, a subject I examine in the issue in 'Forever Alabaster'. Wikipedia lists twenty-one separate Venus epithets, including Lucky, Indulgent and Bearded, all of which refer to her different cult aspects and roles. For this Venus special Jennifer Caroline Campbell depicts Venus as a mossy princess and in her accompanying text, 'As Hot as Venus', she investigates fiery emotions and uncertainty, and casts Venus as an earthy 'god of slow-burning compassion' in a world set on destruction. Elsewhere Alex Michon considers a more subversive Venus, as defined by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch and later the Velvet Underground, in 'Sibilant Seductions'. The focus of Fionn Wilson’s article 'Nightflight to Venus', which borrows its title from a Boney M track, is the planet Venus which she traces across art history. Jaclyn Bethany’s contribution is an appreciation of actress Cate Blanchett, who she sees as a modern-day Venus because of her combination of beauty and intellect. And of course we have a tribute to that titan of athletisim, who bears the name proudly; Venus Williams.

As Ms Williams proves, the image of Venus is more than simply an anachronistic symbol. Venus has been recontextualised by contemporary artists and thinkers, who harness her malleability, to provide thoughtful commentary and inspiration. This is evidenced in the exhibitions Black Venus and The Cult of Beauty, at Somerset House and the Wellcome Collection repectively, and throughout this issue in the articles described above and artworks from Aurora Barrett, Susie Hamilton, Jessie Mockrin, Holly Wisker, Jo Gabriele Sheppard, Ilona Szalay and our other contributors. Venus is no longer simply an object of the male gaze; she is now gainfully employed as a subject in her own right and appears determined to challenge the status quo.

Cathy Lomax

November 2023





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