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Apr 11 2012

Art’s great nudes remade for… modern… sensibilities.

I don’t know about you, but every time I saw Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, my one overriding thought was, “damn but she’s fat. She should be skinnier“.

Okay, I can’t even really say that facetiously. Sorry. My sarcasm is broken.

Botticelli's Birth of Venus

It's rather difficult for me to imagine anyone telling this lady she needs to shave off a few pounds.

So Italian artist Anna Utopia Giordano undertook a project to redesign many of art history’s greatest nude paintings, in order to bring them into closer alignment with how “beauty” is defined by today’s society. The result is a number of paintings of beautiful women who are, simply put, beautiful for completely different reasons.

My initial reaction was one of horror, akin to seeing someone remake Casablanca to have a happier (or sadder) ending. The more I thought about the project, though, the more I figure these remakes are simply different — different women, different ideals, products of different times. None are absurdly skinny, none are impossibly posed, none are gratuitously explicit. I guess what I’m saying here is, all of these women are possible.

And yet, I look back at the originals, and they’re beautiful too. The paintings, and the subjects.

I’m fairly certain every painting of Venus used in this project involved a nude model. I don’t have much in the way of art history training, but this much seems fairly self-evident in the uniqueness involved in each painting’s depiction of the goddess of beauty. The reimaginings, I expect, simply modified the originals rather than working from new models.

So, beauty evolves over time. What each society values in terms of beauty seems to be dependent almost wholly on the zeitgeist of the day. In times of scarcity, healthier-looking women are often considered beautiful — see some examples. In times of plenty, evidently skinnier women are prioritized.

It’s really not difficult to see beauty in just about any shape or size a human might come in. Even extreme outliers, while off-putting initially, can be seen as beautiful if given the right chance.

Anyway, what do you folks think?

19 comments

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  1. 1
    michaeld

    I always thought she was a bit on the stretched side actually the new version looks even more stretched to me. Actually it just seems to be a recurring thing for me. with all the new versions the proportions just seem off and I can’t get my mind past it.

  2. 2
    Cuttlefish

    Damn you.

    I was all ready to rant; I have seen these, a while ago, and far prefer the originals.

    But, of course, I *know* the originals. None of the remakes are skeletal; none of the originals are pathological. Bodies vary; both versions are within reasonable values of “beautiful women”. With plenty of room beyond them, as well. (I had a student, a fine arts major, whose notion of “beautiful” forever changed mine; every line, every curve, every scar, every blemish, every element that makes a person unique is beautiful.)

    So, yeah. I prefer the originals. Probably because we prefer the familiar over the novel, as a rule (I could cite studies, if you wish). But my first reaction was a bit of outrage–how dare she meddle with perfection!–when perfection, really, is not some Platonic ideal.

    But really?

    This is the most beautiful place on earth.

    There are many such places. Every man, every woman, carries in heart and mind the image of the ideal place, the right place, the one true home, known or unknown, actual or visionary.

    Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire http://www.uapress.arizona.edu/catalogs/dlg_show_excerpt.php?id=1 (continues at the link, and well worth it.)

    There is no beauty Ideal. The ideal of beauty, to me, *must* be seen in a varying population. Of paintings, of people, of landscapes, of flowers, of tastes, smells, textures, and sensibilities. “Specialization is for insects” (Heinlein)–give me variability.

    So, damn you. For showing me I can still close my mind, despite myself.

  3. 3
    Jason Thibeault

    Yes, exactly, Cuttlefish. And wow.

    That makes me think — maybe there’s a kind of meta-beauty in the variability of humankind. We’re one species, yet we vary immensely in shape, size, color, personality, style sense, priorities… as a species, we’re pretty damned beautiful, and I don’t think I’m just saying that because I’m one.

    We’re at the same time some of the ugliest, most bitter, violent and hateful creatures that have ever existed (e.g., to derail my own conversation, whoever wrote this to Jessica Ahlquist). But I’d rather not think about that right now.

  4. 4
    John Horstman

    I agree with michaeld that the proportions look seriously off on some of the modified images and that’s hitting me with creepy vibes. I find all of the altered images more creepy than attractive. That doesn’t mean that women with similar body types aren’t valuable as people or aren’t (or shouldn’t be) attractive or beautiful to some people, but I disagree with this statement:

    It’s really not difficult to see beauty in just about any shape or size a human might come in. Even extreme outliers, while off-putting initially, can be seen as beautiful if given the right chance.

    What we find beautiful is a function of cultural context and our personal histories within that context. Some people are not going to be beautiful to any given person, and that’s not a problem unless we place an undue amount of importance on whether someone is “beautiful”.

  5. 5
    Jason Thibeault

    Are the more trying redraws maybe hitting a sort of uncanny valley, John?

  6. 6
    Sas

    I think there’s a lot to hate about altering these paintings that has nothing to do with “ideal beauty”. Mostly, the issue of tampering with someone’s art is irksome to me as an artist, and also it ignores that changing the shape of the subject would alter the poses, compositions, lighting, everything about the image, in small but important ways.

    The biggest reason I find these images ugly because there’s a very subtle problem that I think is the cause of micheald’s off-put feeling. It’s easier to spot if you use Photoshop a lot, but when you take a pre-existing image and alter it, it’s incredibly difficult to not make it look wrong; that’s why over-photoshopped supermodel pics in magazines can look so strange and otherworldly. It’s not because women can’t really be that tall and thin, but that a tall and thin body carries itself and relates to the world in particular ways that can’t easily be faked with photoshop.

    Titian’s Venus, the last one in the set, is an excellent example. The digital manipulator can’t just click a function and make her thinner, she has to manually warp everything around her to make her thinner, because otherwise she could have to completely re-paint the areas that are hidden by the flesh she’s deleting. The bedsheets are warped and no longer convey the firm shape of the cushion under her, they’re just a bulbous mass that doesn’t accurately portray her body resting on it, or the physical shape of the cushion itself. Her left arm used to have a graceful curve and natural resting, but now it’s rigid and weird because she had to warp it along with the belly. And check out the flowers in her right hand! In the altered pic, since the manipulator wanted her breasts to be bigger, she actually warped the flowers into a concave shape. These kind of problems are not the kind of thing that you might necessarily consciously notice, but your brain does and it makes the picture look off.

  7. 7
    Aliasalpha

    Its interesting to see but I’ll stick with the originals.

    I find the legs odd looking now though, they look thinner than they should be. Or skinny rather than slim & fit if that makes sense

  8. 8
    MatthewL

    To my eye the remakes look fake and decidedly inferior. Definitely not from live models. More like figurines drawn from memory or imagination. That they are not impossibly distorted or exaggerated like comic book heroines doesn’t make them good. They also degrade the composition of the originals. I guess I don’t get the point.

  9. 9
    Midnight Rambler

    I don’t know about you, but every time I saw Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, my one overriding thought was, “damn but she’s fat. She should be skinnier”.

    Actually, I did always think that about that one. Not fat exactly, but she has an odd shape, with no hips. Of course, the new version doesn’t make thinks better; I agree with John, the altered ones all look slightly creepy, the Botticelli one in particular.

  10. 10
    lrah

    I don’t mind tampering with someone else’s art – it’s not like the originals were painted over – but I agree with sas about the “offness”.

    I think Bronzino’s Venus (the second one) is probably the worst – the thin legs and hips really, really do not work with her ribcage, especially the part below Cupid’s (?) elbow (which would have been very hard to alter without destroying him).
    The hard edge on the stomach of Gentileschi’s Venus – where the soft shadow has been squished up – looks rather ugly, too.

    I’m sure someone will twist that experiment into a “‘Real Women’ (TM) have curves” message, when really it’s only a demonstration of the limitations of photo manipulation.

  11. 11
    Yellow Thursday

    A couple things bother me about the remakes. First, the women’s hips tend to look odd, even deformed, in the remakes, in the effort to make them skinnier. (And I wouldn’t call any of the originals “fat.”) Second, Giordano has updated the models’ bodies, but not their faces. So the few who have more plump faces no longer match their bodies. This is especially noticeable in Venus Anadyomene.

    So, all in all, I don’t think the remakes were better. I would have the same critiques if they were original artwork — it has little to do with the weight of the models.

  12. 12
    JR

    I think Giordano may be a fine photoshop operator, but she’s got no eye for human anatomy.
    As Yellow Thursday says above, the hips have been badly deformed in the remakes – the paintings’ subjects lose their proper modelling and perspective. She hasn’t just touched up the paintings to make the women look thinner, she’s warped their anatomies essentially to make their profiles thinner, without comensating for how that affects the volumes of the bodies that your brain knows to expect. Without that they can never approach the originals quality-wise, regardless of questions of ‘beauty’.
    The re-makes are fundamentally flawed from an artistic perspective. They’re wrong.

  13. 13
    bspiken

    I don’t think that art can be “wrong” in the way you mean (that is not to say that I don’t see the “poorly photoshoped” look on several of the redraws), I do, however, think it misses the mark, as anyone who doesn’t see the beauty in the originals is either blind or devoid of the capacity to perceive it.

    I am however with Cuttlefish in that the originals look so much more natural (original one might say).

  14. 14
    oldebabe

    The assumption is that the original artist essentially copied something as it is. Obviously, not true. ISTM that what the artist feels about what the artist sees or imagines is what is painted. Anything else is just someone else’s view, and worthless as it relates to the original.

  15. 15
    lordshipmayhem

    Most of the re-imagined classics look considerably younger than the original versions. The originals look to my eye to be in their mid to late 20′s, whereas the newer images look 14 or 15 (or even 13), posing awkwardly in imitation of their more mature sisters.

    In fact, the re-imaging of Alexandre Cabanel’s The Birth of Venus looks like she’s potentially anorexic. The Botticelli has gone most noticeably from fit to gawky teen youth.

    Our standard of “beauty” has gone dangerously toward the underweight and under toned. Women with the physique to carry a baby to term are considered ugly and out of shape, whereas the women for whom a pregnancy would endanger them due to their weight and lack of fitness are considered the picture of health. The Rubenesque shape is not healthy to my eye, but neither is the stick figure so popular today.

  16. 16
    JR

    Sorry, wrong definition of “art”.
    I meant art as in artifice, that is, the craft of the execution of the work. The anatomy, as altered, is an un-skilfully crafted piece of art. I suspect drawn from imagination, not carefully observed from life by a great artist.
    Unless you’re planning to draw (or paint) mutants or freaks, anatomy is an area where you can be wrong in art, and Giordano has gone there.

  17. 17
    julian

    I think it’s, honestly, stupid. Why force yesterday’s works to conform to modern expectations? Doesn’t that devalue and diminish the individuality of the piece by stripping it of it’s context and meaning?

    But then I think “You know… most of these paintings were just some other person’s ideal of beauty so it really doesn’t matter. Don’t know enough art to comment on anything except what I feel about the piece and looking at both makes me feel nothing.”

    P.S. Seconding lordshipmayhem’s point. I don’t believe yesterday’s standards had anything to do with health but today’s standards (as reflected by these remakes) points to a dangerous fetishization of sickly thin bodies.

  18. 18
    Jason Thibeault

    Sorry for leaving this post hanging, I’ve had a very full day. (As it happens, it’s my birthday, but I still managed to get more accomplished than some people manage on their busiest days!)

    I agree with those that say that the remakes suffer from the issue of the photomanipulation being far too blatant and obvious. Some are worse than others, of course. Cabanel’s Venus, though, is actually not that bad a photomanipulation, even if it’s still obvious in the drastic nature of the difference between them.

    I guess my main point was, if these were representative of real human beings, I would not have seen them as being ugly, or too skinny. I agree that today’s sensibilities trend way too far toward the skinny end, but speaking as someone who has his entire life been regarded as too skinny (where being a male, that’s not a turn-on), I can completely understand what it must be like to be hated for being skinny in a culture that prefers it. I dislike the idea that just because society prefers it, that naturally skinny women (who simply can’t gain weight, no matter how hard they try, for instance) might be hated for being skinny. It’s as unfair to those women as it is unfair to the women who are stigmatized for being too large. Of course, the women who are stigmatized for being too large are also double-whammied by the idea that somehow they are culpable for being too large (e.g. that their largeness is a moral failing), but it’s still unfair to those skinny folk to mistreat them for their skinniness.

  19. 19
    Zeno

    These reimagined images needed more work than Giordano was apparently willing to put in. The results are mostly too top-heavy and look subtly distorted rather than simply more slender. The only one that seemed successful to me was the Cabanel Venus, whose smaller original breasts are more compatible with the revision’s narrowed hips than was the case with the generous mammaries of the better-upholstered models in the other paintings.

  1. 20
    Beauty On Canvas | Meddling Kids

    [...] I’d like to give a nod to Lousy Canuck, as I have only just heard of this project thanks to this post on his always excellent [...]

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