Exploration of female nudes in the Classical and the Hellenistic
The two pieces of sculptures that I will be comparing are The Dying Niobid and Aphrodite of Knidos. The Dying Niobid is a Classical sculpture dated 450-440 BCE. The Aphrodite of Knidos is a Hellenistic piece by Praxiteles during the peak of his career between 330 and 360 BCE. There was a change in values and virtues of Greek culture through the transition from the Classical to the Hellenistic. This was especially true in case of perception of art concerning men and people from other cultures outside Greece. However one thing that did not change was the perception of women in that society. Women were exploited in the Classical era and that continued through to the Hellenistic era in the portrayal of women in sculpture.
The Dying Niobid is the first female nude sculpture found belonging to the Classical period. This piece is clearly Classical with a few innovations such as the nude portrayal. It was a bold move by the unknown sculptor because women were always clothed as nudity corresponded to heroic status. When men were depicted in sculpture, they were nude and larger than life affirming the male dominance of the society. An example of this dominance is the Discobolos by Myron in mid-fifth century BCE which showed an idealized larger than life male who was not self conscious about his nudity. This offers the heroic element to the sculpture. There was no self-consciousness due to the lack of clothing which suggested confidence and vitality.
The primary iconography of the piece suggests pathos since the young Niobid was fleeing from Artemis and was shot in her back with an arrow. That was suggestive of cowardice as no man would have been shot in the back. She stumbles as she is shot in the back and that causes her drapes to fall off. The nude element is accidental as she stumbles and reaches back to pull the arrow out. In the process, she grimaces and throws her head back in a pathetic gesture. This clearly deters the piece from reaching heroic status. We can also see the pain of evident death on her face. She realizes that she is doomed and fated to die. Her form is Classical as the piece depicts rhythmos due to symmetry in motion. Her right arm and left thigh are on a vertical line, so there is symmetry on the vertical axis. Her extended right thigh is balanced by her arms reaching for her back. She also forms a triangle which provides with a certain sense of stability because Classical sculpture was about order and reason. Stability in the form was very important. This was also about the momentary as it was depiction of frozen motion, a still image in the process of the young Niobid stumbling.
The artist was playing around with new ideas but he still had various constraints regarding form and iconography. Women had not been depicted nude in the Classical era due to their inferior status in society. The sculptor balanced the nudity in the piece by showing her in the process of dying. Dying can be shown in a heroic manner but the artist goes further to deprive her of heroic status by showing her getting shot in the back as she runs away cowardly from her pursuer. He balanced the piece because the public of that era would not appreciate the novelty of female nudity. The portrayal of death in a woman who is vulnerable and defeated depreciated the value of the female Niobid. The piece conformed to the ideals of Greek society during that period.
The young Niobid was unselfconscious of her nudity as she was more concerned with the arrow in her back. This caused her to gaze upwards as she fished around for the arrow. This allows us to gaze at her accidental nudity freely. This brings a voyeuristic element to the piece and suggests a certain level of eroticism. This eroticism borders on pornography because it provides the male viewer sexual pleasure while looking at it. The pornographic element in this piece is ghastly with the portrayal of death. It is similar to snuff pornography in the modern world where the subject or victim is murdered brutally on film after having sex.
The Dying Niobid acknowledged the male dominance in the society as the male viewer had the control of interpreting the piece the way he wanted. He could either look at it erotically or look at it with disgust. He could derive pleasure from viewing the topless Niobid or be sickened by the pathos during the last moments of her death. Either way, this showed that women were still exploited and would not be given equal status in society. Men could be heroes but women would not be given the status. They would be almost heroic and then the artist would do something to the piece to deprive them of the heroic element. Women were shown as soft, delicate and vulnerable, which was not heroic.
The Aphrodite of Knidos was a trend setting piece as there were many versions of Aphrodite created later. This was a piece of Hellenistic sculpture as the iconography shown here is as simple as a bath. The piece shows Aphrodite nude with her right hand covering her pubic area with her left hand holding on to a drape over a water vase. Her head is also turned to the left. She is emerging or getting ready for a bath. This is a very private moment that we are witnessing. This piece does not have a heroic element in it either due to the selfconsciousness of her nudity.
The pose of Aphrodite was contrapposto which is defined by American Heritage� Dictionary as �The position of a figure in painting or sculpture in which the hips and legs are turned in a different direction from that of the shoulders and head; the twisting of a figure on its own vertical axis.� She has her right hip cocked to the side with most of her weight on her right foot. It�s a casual stance which is more comfortable that the rigid straight posture. This casual posture alleviates strain. However she is balanced with her extended left arm and hand. This pose conveys ease in posture yet reassuring stability. This is very similar to the Doryphoros. Her pose is more supple, feminine, and not athletic because she is stooping a little. This made her nude feminine form different from the athletic yet casual stance of the male Doryphoros. However a key difference in the two pieces is that the male Doryphoros is not self conscious about his nudity.
The line form of the Aphrodite is S-shaped which induces sensuality to the image. Plaxiteles used the bath as a pretext for nudity. She is self conscious about her nudity. This is perhaps due to her privacy being invaded by a male gaze. She quickly moves to cover her private areas in a gesture of modesty. Her posture is coy which makes this image of Aphrodite erotic. This piece was made for a male gaze. This voyeurism makes this image pornographic too. Her failed attempt to be modest makes it more erotic because it makes us wonder about what�s hidden. However, since her gaze is not straight but looking off to the left, we are allowed to view her nudity freely without feeling uncomfortable.
There are similarities between The Dying Niobid and the Aphrodite of Knidos. They have a certain sense of order. Both of them are balanced, inducing order into the sculptures. This makes the Aphrodite of Knidos pseudo classical. They are both nude but without the trait of heroism. The Niobid is portrayed with pathos as she stumbles. Aphrodite is shown in a private moment doing something as trivial as a bath. Both the female nudes are looking away which allows the viewer to scan her body at his pace without feeling uncomfortable. An interesting observation is that the build of both nudes are similar. It�s rather fascinating to see that the image of a sensual female body had not changed. The voyeuristic element in both the female nudes gives control to the male viewer. This shows the exploitation of women because men thought women were inferior to them. They made women seem like mere sex objects.
Since these pieces are produced in contrasting eras, they have some fundamental differences. They have different forms as the form of the Niobid is more rigid and ordered. The Niobid is also not conscious about her nudity while Aphrodite is clearly conscious of her nudity as she moves to preserve her modesty. Another difference is that the Niobid is shown performing a pathetic gesture while Aphrodite is merely in a bath. Mortal women were likely to be shown more pathetic and vulnerable than goddesses.
Since neither of these pieces are heroic and are suggestively erotic, it portrays the status of women as lowly. They were not allowed to be equal to men. We have not been witness to any male nudes that were meant to be erotic. This is due to the fact that most of the sculptures were made for rich male aristocrats who looked down upon women. When the artists created these masterpieces, they were subject to constraints in art during the particular era. During the Classical era, the nude female was not a permissible theme when the male nude form was evolving. So, they had to create abnormal states for the female subject to make her nude. However, even with relaxation of that form of prejudice, Praxiteles felt like he had to justify Aphrodite�s nudity by using the premise of a bath. They were not allowed to show women as heroes due to possible public outrage. So, they condoned the male dominance by creating images of women which were meant to serve as high class pornography further subjugating women.
- The Aphrodite of Knidos and Her Successors: A Historical Review of the Female Nude in Greek Art. Christine Mitchell Havelock. University of Michigan Press.
- Greek Sculpture: A Critical Review. Rhys Carpenter. University of Chicago Press.