I’d like to share my thoughts on some of the statues that I saw in Louvre’s collection of Greek artwork. Before we begin, I have to admit that I do not know as much about Greek sculpture as I would like. My area of interest is primarily ancient literature, not artwork, and so, I cannot be as in-depth in terms of analysis as I normally am. My comments, which still will involve some analysis, will probably have more to do with my personal thoughts regarding the aesthetic quality of the statues.
Venus de Milo, discovered in 1820 on the Greek island Melos, is one of the most well-known items on display at the Louvre. The name of the statue is a little bit confusing, since it refers to Venus, the Roman version of the love goddess, but of course since this is a Greek sculpture, it would be more proper to call her Aphrodite. Whether she is actually the Greek goddess of love remains unclear, but the sensual beauty of her naked body leads many to think that this is supposed to be Aphrodite.
This sculpture dates to around the 2nd century BC, placing it right in the middle of the Hellenistic period, which extends from 323 BC until 31 BC, according to modern scholars. In his conquests, Alexander the Great spread Greek culture across the Eastern Mediterranean, into the southwestern regions of Asia, reaching eventually as far as India, but he died in 323 and his massive empire was divided among his generals into various kingdoms. The last of these kingdoms, Ptolemaic Egypt, fell to Rome in 31 BC, after the death of the famous Cleopatra.
In the political sense, the Hellenistic period refers to the era in which these powerful Greek kingdoms were dominant. In a cultural sense, the Hellenistic period marked the rise of a new world unified by Greek culture, but with influences coming from the local Eastern cultures. More specifically in regard to sculpture, the term “Hellenistic” has to do with the style of artwork that emerged from this meeting of cultures, characterized by a deeper interest in emotional content and dramatic movement. These were ideas that artists of the earlier Classical style had not been so interested in.
So, back to Venus de Milo. She represents certain aspects of Hellenistic art, but also calls back to earlier ideas seen in the Classical style. The timeless sense of balance, the perfect form of Aphrodite’s body, and her calm, almost detached, expression definitely stem from the Classical style. We also see Hellenistic elements at work, such as the lovely sense of movement and flow we get when looking at the curve of statue’s back, or the wonderfully-crafted folds in her robe as she steps forward with one leg.
What we have is the fusion of two styles of art, and the result is, I think, quite pleasing. There is movement here, a subtle hint of drama in the shifting of her robes and in the curve of her back, but it is a graceful movement, one that preserves the beautiful form of the female body and creates a very interesting sense of asymmetrical balance. Her face is hard to read, adding to the mystery of it all. Venus de Milo is alive and in motion, yet she is timeless, caught in a single moment that has become eternal.
For more, visit the Louvre’s page about Venus de Milo here.
I would have loved also to see Winged Victory, another wonderful example of Hellenistic art, but unfortunately, the exhibit was closed for restoration. Still, I’d like to share an image of the statue from Wikipedia with you.
Discovered in 1863 on the island of Samothrace, Winged Victory is known as one of the greatest works of Hellenistic sculpture, dating to the late third or early second century BC. Nike, the goddess of victory, stands atop the prow of a ship. Her wings are spread majestically behind her, while her robes billow dramatically in the wind.
It is a testament to the skill of the artist that we are able to so clearly imagine the rippling of her clothes as she steps forward against a strong breeze out at sea. This sculpture is massive and imposing, yet it is filled with a graceful sense of grandeur.
For more, visit the Louvre’s page about the sculpture here.
I find it quite amazing that these two great sculptures have pieces missing, yet are thought to be some of the greatest works of Greek art. I think it has to do with the enduring power of the whole, a sense of unity within the sculpture itself, that allows us to see the beauty of the work, despite the missing head on Nike or the missing arms on Venus de Milo.
These are merely pieces of cold stone, yet they have come alive with a flowing movement; they are eternally in motion, forever stepping toward us. This is the essence of what makes sculpture, especially of the Hellenistic style, so fascinating.