by Laura Mattioli. Among so many whom COVID-19 has taken from us this year is my old friend Graziano Ghiringhelli. I met Graziano as a child, when he worked at the Galleria Il Milione in Milan, where my father frequently acquired works of art. Graziano had inherited this historic gallery after the death of his uncle Gino in 1964 and he stood for a number of years at its helm.
Fifteen years ago, we renewed our friendship, at a difficult time for him, in his later life. He had indulged himself lifelong, mostly with alcohol, much to his cost. I did what I could for him then and to mark our friendship and mutual esteem, Graziano gave me a small reproduction of the Venus of Willendorf. It is quite a special replica since, as Graziano told me, it had been a gift made to him by Marina, the widow of Marino Marini (1901-1980), perhaps the most prominent Italian sculptor of the postwar era. Marina told him that Marino would hold and caress this small Venus while he drew— a detail that lights the relationship between touch, sight and gesture— something that might be as particularly interesting for neuroscientists as for the rest of us. This small sculpture is certainly endowed with extraordinary tactile presence and was perhaps made to be held, as much as seen.
I knew that much like Etruscan portraits and Chinese horses, the Venus of Willendorf was among the ancient sources for Marini’s contemporary work. So, as Director of the Center for Modern Italian Art, I included the Venus in an exhibition of Marino Marini’s female figures mounted last October in New York. I placed her on the Center mantelpiece next to two bronzetti realized by the artist in Switzerland between 1943 and 1945.
Above the mantelpiece hung an untitled painting by Willem de Kooning made between 1952 and 1953. A painting of strong colors and strong gestures marking a standing woman, naked, voluptuous, large-breasted, with a prominent abdomen, navel, vulva and thighs that fill most of the image. Her face crams in, eye level just below the top of the page, but below the knees her legs disappear, much as do those of the prehistoric Venus.
In spite of being realised 25,000 years apart, these two pieces are astonishingly similar. I do not believe that this is a matter of derivation– rather they are parallel reflections of female nature in vastly different historical settings: woman as brute physical reality. Her capacity to generate life equipped her with a force both mysterious, dominant and disquieting— quite the opposite of the angelic woman and our conventional rhetoric of mother-grace.
The Venus of Willendorf is a small sculpture, only 4 3/8 inches tall, painted with red ochres of which only traces remain. She is a Paleolithic object, roughly 25,000 years old, made of an Oolitic limestone that we know is not local to her discovery site. Somehow, she traveled. She was found in 1908 by the archeologist Josef Szombathy near the village of Willendorf in der Wachau, Austria.
Aside from these few facts, we know practically nothing about the object– by whom it was realised, who owned it, what its use might have been, how it was maintained, presented, and most importantly, what it meant. And our questions may well remain unanswered forever, since it seems that even by the most stringent efforts, we may never know much more about those very distant times.
Our Venus is one of a number of so-called Venuses which have no relation to the concept of classical beauty most familiar to us. Her nudity is in itself quite extraordinary, as it was for the Classical-era Venus, who was also glimpsed (without her approval) in a moment of undress untypical of contemporary life 2500 years ago. 25,000 years ago, the Glaciation of Wurn kept people in a state of continuous heavy cover, for safety’s sake. Perhaps the Willendorf Venus’ nudity is in itself a message of confidence in survival.
We can perhaps safely presume that she is not the portrait of an ancestor, nor any other individual: she has no characteristic facial features, and her body is rendered selectively and with varying attention. The parts of her body that are represented most prominently are those most materially redolent of the physical source of life. The rest is vestigial: her neck is missing, as are the lower halves of her legs. Her arms are only thinly indicated, as they lace round her enormous breasts.
She must have been a “freestanding” form, though in fact she cannot stand by herself. And there is no hole that might have allowed her to be strung and worn on a cord, a detail present in some other prehistoric figurines. Perhaps she was made to be held, as a devotion.
Her head is covered by something interpreted as either a hat, or an elaborate hairstyle. Her hair might be braided in a chain depicting the succession of generations linked one to the next. A similar detail appears as well in other, widely distributed figurines, for example the Venus of Kostenki, which was discovered in Russia.
The chain is the most abstract and expressive element in our Venus, a symbolism that might very well constitute the primary message behind the artifact. Though the Venus does not portray a particular ancestor she might represent a continuing genealogy of ancestors, linked by female fertility and passing life forward in relay, woman to woman to woman.
She is one link that feels like a great many. Then and now, these few inches of limestone contain more than one fundamental mystery, at once. Held in one hand, she is the apparent germ of human life, and the ongoing gift of sexuality, fecundity, nourishment and survival.