Goddess of Love Gracefully Treated
By Jihyun Ro, CONTRIBUTING WRITER
Published: The Harvard Crimson, Tuesday, November 01, 2011
Photograph: Mirror with women bathing before a statue of Aphrodite on a pillar, 110-117, Roman (Eastern Mediterranean ?), Bronze; gilt bronze, reverse silvered, Object: Diam.: 13 cm, Accession No. VEX.2012.1.95, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Museum purchase with funds donated, by Dr. Ernest and Virginia Lewisohn Kahn.
Aphrodite, known to the world as the Greek goddess of love and beauty, seems to have found her home in the Torf Gallery of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. In an exhibit titled “Aphrodite and the Gods of Love,” curators Christine Kondoleon and Phoebe Segal honor the goddess and her impact on culture throughout history.
The introduction at the front of the gallery explains the collection’s purpose. “This exhibit is the first ever to consider how visual representations of Aphrodite evolved across antiquity.” This context provides a clear and succinct gateway with which to enter the exhibit. Aphrodite’s power and influence echoes through the well-framed structure of the exhibit and the deliberate pieces it holds.
Through a mixture of sculptures, urns, frescos, and jewelry, Aphrodite is depicted in all of her forms. Because the exhibit is organized thematically, it is possible to trace her development from the ancestors that inspired her to her birth and then, ultimately, to those who worshipped her. The diversity of artistic media echoes the various attributes attached to the goddess; beauty, passion, and fertility are all celebrated in this exhibit. For example, sculptural pieces like the “Head of Aphrodite (Bartlett Head)” and “Aphrodite of Capua” pay tribute to the classically soft, feminine features that Western culture has associated with beauty. These are juxtaposed with the more crude erotic urns depicting lovers overcome with desire sparked by Eros. As Eros is her son, this is yet another manifestation of Aphrodite’s power. These beautifully made but strange pieces are a thoughtful reminder of the range of powers that the goddess holds.
The young god Eros is shown both physically and through his power over civilians. This dual depiction, one tangible and the other abstract, is a common trend in “Aphrodite and the Gods of Love,” holding the exhibit together to undeniably positive effect. Aphrodite’s significance is found in her corporeal form and through her lovers, children, and even the beauty products she inspired. Also worth noting is “Statue of Aphrodite or a Roman Lady,” a weathered portrait modeled after what the Romans considered to be the physical traits of the powerful goddess.
These key pieces, among others, create a tangible flow, which not only provides an enjoyable viewing experience but also reflects how well the exhibit has been designed by the curators. Although the entire collection is confined to one room, the layout makes use of the entire space to emphasize the subject, which, as a singular entity, is better viewed in a smaller setting. The dark grey walls contrast appealingly with the white marble statues, while the subtle circular path within which the artwork is placed guides the audience first around the outskirts of the room, then eventually toward the center. Even the placards along the outer wall separate the exhibit into sections, each with information on a different aspect of the development of the goddess. This provides the audience with an easier way to assess the artistic value of the pieces.
Several pieces also promote the inferred visual lines within the exhibit. These lines not only connect key pieces, but also make them more accessible by complementing the flow of the exhibit. For example, Cupid and Psyche’s “First Kiss” fresco is the resultant focal point of the left side path of the exhibit, providing emphasis and promoting movement. Walking past this, one finds the “Statue of a Sleeping Hermaphrodite” sculpture. Its horizontal form is eye-catching and seems to point the way towards the rest of the pieces in the exhibit.
The exhibit culminates in the center of the room with its large-scale sculptural depictions of the goddess, as the ancients would have imagined her. Through these pieces, the accumulation of the historical development of Aphrodite and her lasting influence on the global ideas of love and beauty join to form a powerful conclusion to the exhibit. The curators’ desire to pay homage to these themes through this combination is rewarded by a unique and compelling exhibit.
The curators have provided a varied selection that successfully highlights the importance of Aphrodite to the development of classical art. With her mythic status promoting all that relates to the realm of love, the goddess has captured the fascination of artists, thus remaining a popular subject for them through the ages. “Aphrodite and the Gods of Love” uses both its structure and its content to honor this important symbol of femininity.
Explaining the symbolism of the bronze mirror
This gilt bronze mirror with a bathing scene belongs to a group made during the Hadrianic period, probably in Asia Minor. In the foreground, two women stand beside a wash basin (louterion); the woman on the left reaches down to pick up a water jar (kalpis) by its strap while the woman on the right pours what is probably perfumed oil from a vessel into the basin. Behind them stands a pillar with a small statue of Aphrodite Anadyomene (wringing out her hair).
Here, the explicit visual parallel between the bathing women and their divine patron bather, together with the elegant poses of the bathing women, which themselves evoke Hellenistic statues of Aphrodite, demonstrates that ancient women sought to emulate the goddess.
“Aphrodite and the Gods of Love” is organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in association with the J. Paul Getty Museum. The exhibition closed at the MFA on February 20, and will make its way to the Getty Villa in Malibu, California where it will be in view from March 28 to July 9. After that it will go to be displayed in New Mexico at the San Antonio Museum of Art from September 15, 2012 to February 17, 2013 and then at the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa, OK from March 10 to May 26, 2013.