It was a hatchet job like no other. The woman was attacked from behind, the efficient jabbing of a meat cleaver hacking six deep cuts into her exposed, pearlescent flesh. When the butchery had climaxed, the wounds stretched from the nape of the neck, down the smooth elegance of the back and finished at the curvaceous ridge of the left hip.
The victim was Venus, the Roman Goddess of Love. In seconds, the sexual deity was brought savagely to earth, in what must have seemed to onlookers like the senseless violence of a madman. Yet the attack wasn’t senseless, and the culprit wasn’t even a man. On the morning of March 10 1914, suffragette Mary Richardson carved her own notorious signature on the history of art by vandalising the most desirable female of all.
The lady was the Rokeby Venus, Diego Velásquez's only surviving female nude. The scene of the crime was London’s National Gallery. The previous day, suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst had been arrested in Glasgow while escalating her campaign to secure women the vote. In response, her loyal lieutenant marched into the grey, statuesque building overlooking Trafalgar Square and launched a calculated cultural missile against the patriarchal establishment by knifing, in her words, 'the most beautiful woman in mythological history, as a protest against the Government for destroying Mrs Pankhurst, the most beautiful woman in modern history'.
In Mary’s eyes, Velásquez's seventeenth century flesh show visualised all that was wrong with society. Women had been stripped of their innate rights, she believed, in the way Velásquez had artfully deprived Venus of her clothes. Females were subjugated to second class status, mere vessels of servitude existing solely for the gratification of men. The figure of Venus was the ultimate example of this oppression: a fictitious incarnation of masculine desire embodying all that women should be.
The Rokeby Venus by Diego Velásquez (1647-1651)
From a heterosexual male perspective, the 122cm by 177cm oil painting is pretty much perfect, as alluring and intoxicating as rich perfume drifting amorously through the air. Velásquez depicts Venus from the rear, lazily reclining amid an opulent boudoir of white, grey and crimson, absorbed in a looking-glass propped up by her son, Cupid. The visual field drinks in her entire body, from the big toe of the left foot to the right elbow supporting her lovely head. The spectacle is crowned by a bob of soft chestnut hair, just a few deft flicks away from draping seductively across her shoulders, like the pink ribbons which gracefully decorate her vanity mirror.
These details are mere supporting players to the main attraction: the exquisitely-defined backside sitting below the dead centre of the picture. A work of art in its own right, Venus’s bottom is a masterpiece of svelte shapeliness, the white, grey and blue pigments blending to create a pale, supple playground of soft, yielding flesh. It’s a visual gratification that soon gives way to mental anticipation, as your mind races ahead to imagine what delights may await when she turns over.
Such provocation is part of the picture’s problem though. Despite its aura of intimacy, the Rokeby Venus feels strangely remote and depersonalised. Venus’s face, that most expressive part of any person’s body, is obscured and muddied in the mirror, rendering her mood beyond scrutiny. She is distant from the viewer, less a real person and more a sexual object. Physicality is foregrounded, personality is traduced, and the picture feels emblematic of a sexism that makes Mary Richardson’s vandalism almost understandable given the political inequalities of her time.
|Mary led away by policemen after the attack|
If you were to intellectualise it further, you could say the painting predates and embodies what 20th century French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan called ‘gaze’: the theory that once people become conscious of themselves as objects, they begin to comprehend themselves through the viewpoint of the watcher, and consequently lose their sense of autonomy.
In feminist terms, the male gaze strips the opposite sex of its identity, exerting a pernicious power that arguably still persists in the fashion and celebrity magazines of today. Through Velásquez’s placement of the mirror, Venus is in effect watching herself being watched by the heterosexual male for whom the picture was no doubt intended, the epitome of womanhood appreciating her ‘self’ through the prism of a male-oriented aesthetic. But Velásquez is not your ordinary artist, and this isn’t your ordinary slice of upper-class erotica. The more you look at the Rokeby Venus, the more you realise the painter’s mission isn’t to insidiously crush female self-esteem, but something far more ambiguous.
Consider the unorthodox pose in which Venus lies. Many depictions of the Goddess in art – Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, Giorgone’s Sleeping Venus, Titian’s Venus with a Mirror – are painted from the front. In the Rokeby version, Velásquez reverses the decision, leaving more to the imagination, yet undercutting your sense of voyeuristic authority. With her back turned dismissively and face inscrutable, the scene feels like a highly-charged game of sexual poker – a playful prick-tease in which the aloof, enigmatic Venus holds all the cards. She is a goddess after all, beyond the reach of ordinary men, and the fact we can’t read her emotions only adds to the viewer’s disempowerment.
Moreover, Velásquez’s brushwork reinforces the feeling of our gaze being manipulated and controlled. At the centre, where those glorious buttocks sit resplendent, the technique is pin-sharp, while the face in the mirror – a messy, poorly-defined blur which x-ray tests prove was an intentional artistic effect – remains out of focus. You can only look at one thing at a time, implies Velásquez, and Venus knows exactly which part of her body your eye is being drawn to. The male gaze is essentially hypnotised and subjugated, and although the suffragettes may have disagreed, you do begin to wonder which gender is actually chained to the railings.
A closer look reveals another, more significant, optical illusion. The reflection in the mirror, tonally out of sync with the rest of the picture, is a flagrant breach of perspective. In spatial terms, it would be impossible for Venus to be looking at herself in the mirror. If she was, we wouldn’t be able to see her face because her head would be in the way. This is what’s known as the ‘Venus effect’, a piece of visual trickery commonplace in depictions of the Goddess since the Renaissance. By breaking the laws of physics and transposing the face onto the vanity mirror, the picture implies Venus is in fact staring directly at us, and that we, not the Goddess, are the self-conscious objects of the Lacanian gaze.
That’s not the only sleight-of-hand, especially for the dirty-minded. Contemporary art historians have found that if you were to recreate the Rokeby Venus exactly with a real-life model, the mirror would in fact reflect not Venus’s face but her crotch. So maybe the rough, murky expression staring out from that dark mirror-world represents something else entirely, and is coded visual language for that shadowy recess which for many men is the ultimate Venus flytrap. Is there something not to be trusted about that place, we wonder, and are we in fact being warned about the dangers of carnal pleasure? After all, the word Venus derives from ‘venenum’, the Latin word for poison, which would make men nothing more than feeble drones being drawn to their doom, like the sailors who perish before the Sirens in Homer’s Odyssey.
Such a reading is woefully sexist though, succumbing to the depressing binary pattern that occurs in so much male art, which sees women as angels or whores, sweet innocents or femme fatales. Another interpretation does suggest itself, one which feels more in tune with the picture’s sheer romantic sensuality. Velásquez painted his Venus in the latter half of his career during a sojourn to Italy, which in those days was a more permissive, easy-going society that the puritanical solemnity of the Spanish Royal court. Biographers argue that, in the throes of a mid-life crisis, Velásquez entered into a steamy affair with an Italian courtesan, and it’s that woman and that fling – ecstatic, bewitching, life-affirming – which he glorified so spectacularly in paint.
The artist returned to Spain taking his memento with him, perhaps wondering whether he would ever see the real thing again. In that context, the fading, greyed-out face is more poignant than provocative, symbolising a transitory passion that’s slipping away, the nuances of a lost love’s beautiful face dissolving sadly into Velásquez’s rear view mirror. It’s therefore not a hunger for sexual domination, but a yearning for an untouchable romantic love, the thing of which Venus is the highest spiritual incarnation, that’s the picture’s raison d’être.
Maybe, maybe not. Like Velásquez’s most famous picture Las Meninas, the Rokeby Venus will always be a perplexing enigma. Perhaps the safest conclusion to draw is that the painting is one gigantic mirror, propped up not by a compliant Cupid but by the force of our own preoccupations. Like all art, you get from the picture what you bring to it. In the end, it’s up to you whether you think it’s a chauvinistic assault on women, an ode to the eternal struggle of sexual politics, shrewd psychoanalysis before its time, an achingly sad love letter to a paramour from the past or just the finest piece of ass in Western art.
Much like a failed relationship or an imagined fantasy, great art has a habit of leaving you with more questions than answers. To me, conflicting emotions of fear and desire, longing and loss, anxiety and anticipation, are what Velásquez’s picture is really all about. There’s something both attractive and repellent about this fragrant, ineffable goddess, who draws you in with her raw sexuality and pushes you away with her inscrutability. So close you can almost touch her, so faraway as to be unknowable, she’s a quintessential vision of the pleasure and pain inherent in sexual love.
No matter how intimate you are with another person, Velásquez says, do you ever really know the person gazing back at you? And how much power can you hope to have, when you’re in the throes of an emotion that’s based on naked surrender and blind, ecstatic loss of control? Absorbing the Rokeby Venus is like taking a magisterial step into the art of the unknown, an image that beckons you seductively across its threshold to meet Love itself, the single greatest experience life has to offer, and leaves you wondering what on heaven and earth you’re letting yourself in for.
|The Rokeby Venus in situ at London's National Gallery|