J. Paul Getty had married and divorced four wives before he was middle-aged. When he came to collect Mediterranean antiquities, he had a special affection for Aphrodite, goddess of love, sex, and marriage. In the 1970s, Getty’s Malibu museum dedicated a whole room to images of Aphrodite from Getty’s personal collection. They included the tiny rock-crystal Crouching Aphrodite at left.
Never has the Getty Villa hosted such an array of Aphrodites (and Venuses) as it does right now, in “Aphrodite and the Gods of Love.” Organized with the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the exhibition includes spectacular loans from Italy, most notably the over-life-size Venus of Capua (below) and a version of the Sleeping Hermaphrodite. Art lovers go to Europe to see such things. Through July 9, you can see them in Malibu for a $15 parking reservation.
Despite these stunners, this isn’t a cost-no-object attempt to corral the world’s greatest Aphrodites. Most of the pieces are from the Boston MFA’s fine collection. They are supplemented by works from the Getty (including the crystal Crouching Aphrodite) and an important Cypriot head of Aphrodite from the Worcester Museum of Art.
Aphrodite is complicated. She was Cypriot and foreign to the Greeks, who may not have appreciated her long backstory in Eastern goddesses of millenia BC. Aphrodite made war as well as love, and was charged with providing smooth sailing for sailors.
The lost original of the Sleeping Hermaphrodite must have been Hellenistic Greek. The sculptor is unknown—perhaps ancient commentators didn’t take it all that seriously. The chick’s got a dick, and the sculpture became a meme for basically the same reason that The Crying Game did. Countless copies, full-size and reduced, were produced throughout antiquity, in the Renaissance, and indeed today, by the crudest of Internet tchotchke mills. The version at the Getty is one of the few well-preserved life-size copies. It’s Roman, second century AD, from the Museo Nazionale Romano.
Boston’s staid reputation did not prevent it from assembling a secret museum of antique erotica. The exhibition has depictions of romance straight and gay, tender and nasty. A bronze mirror from c. 330 BC Corinth shows a position, known as “The Lioness,” that will educate many 21st-century roués (right).
Speaking of which. At least two of Aphrodite’s canonical images were based on the features of Athens’ most beloved whore, Phryne. She was the model for Praxiteles’ sculpture of the Cnidian Aphrodite, apparently the first female nude in Greek art. She was also the inspiration for a famous painting of Aphrodite wringing her hair, by Apelles, most famous painter of Greek antiquity. The Getty show has sculptural copies of both lost originals. Has any single sitter, even Mona Lisa or Rembrandt, had such a lasting influence on Western art history? And it was Phryne’s whole body that mesmerized.
Phryne was said to be so beautiful, and so shrewd, that she appeared public in a veil. The mystery was the best possible advertising. She charged clients a sliding fee based on virtue and ability to pay. Phryne comped the ragged philosopher Diogenes; demanded a king’s ransom from the King of Lydia (who paid it and defrayed it via a surtax on his subjects).
When the city of Cos commissioned Praxiteles to sculpt an Aphrodite, he did a nude of Phryne. Cos refused it as indecent. Praxiteles then sold it to the city of Cnidus. There the Cnidian Aphrodite became such a huge tourist attraction that it solved the Cnidian deficit problem.
The Getty owns a small second-century Roman version (left). The goddess doesn’t need clothes to do a strip tease, using her hand both to conceal her genitals and to direct the gaze toward them.
Apelles’ painting of Aphrodite wringing her hair was based on a true story. At an Eleusian festival dedicated to Poseidon, Phryne stripped naked in view of worshippers and walked into the sea. Like everything else by Apelles, that painting is lost. Descriptions of the Apelles informed Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus (which however reverts to the pose of the Cnidian Aphrodite) and more directly Titian’s Venus Rising From the Sea. “Aphrodite and the Gods of Love” has a couple of small hair-wringing Aphrodites in marble.
Phryne’s action led to her arrest for public indeceny, followed by the trial of the 4th century BC. Her attorney, Hypereides, also happened to be one of Phryne’s johns. In the midst of the trial, Hypereides removed Phryne’s gown in front of the judges. “How,” he demanded, “could a festival in honor of the gods be desecrated by beauty which they themselves bestowed?”
The courtroom drama was amusingly reimagined by Jean-Léon Gérôme in Phryne Before the Judges (1861, bottom of post and not in show). Naturally, Phryne was acquitted.
Athens thereafter banned the nudity defense, and a couple of millennia later, lovelorn billionaire J. Paul Getty regretted, “A lasting relationship with a woman is only possible if you are a business failure.”