Goddess of Pin-Up

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No mythological figure has endured in the cultural imagination quite so successfully as Venus, the Roman goddess of love and beauty, known to the Greeks as Aphrodite. The daughter of Zeus and mother of Eros, she is said to have been born of the foaming waves of the wine-dark Aegean. And no Cleopatra, Duchess of Alba or other Venus imitator — no Bardot or Monroe, for that matter — has ever matched the staying power of the Western world's original bathing beauty. At least that's what a show called "Venus Fascination" at Cologne's Wallraf-Richartz Museum sets out to prove. The exhibit, which lasts until Jan. 7 in Cologne before moving to Munich in February and Antwerp in May, features 165 renderings of Venus in painting, sculpture and drawing across four centuries, from before Lucas Cranach in the late 1400s to Alexandre Cabanel in the late 1800s.

The show has lofty academic aims. For one thing, it seeks to demonstrate how the Renaissance and Baroque masters, both consciously and unconsciously, equated Venus' feminine allure with the abstract ideal of beauty — paying their dues, as it were, to what was then art's noblest purpose. For another, on a more terrestrial level, it traces Venus as a central figure in allegorical painting bearing on relations between men and women, between mothers and children, and between victors and victims of love affairs. In Nicolas Poussin's arcadian 1628 Mars and Venus, for example, the god of war has laid his weapons aside to sit in harmonious repose with the goddess. The allegory couldn't be clearer, says curator Ekkehard Mai: "The power of love brings peace — 'Make love, not war' is an old idea."

But it is not lost on curator Mai that a basic attraction of the show is also plain and simply its pageant of ravishing nudes. From Homer to Ovid, Venus was often described as nude, and nude she has remained on canvas ever since — very usefully too, as it turns out. "Venus has traditionally legitimized showing nudes in art," Mai explains. "And more. Gods and goddesses are allowed to do things men are not allowed to do. Thus, mythological painting enabled artists to show all sorts of undressed amorousness — simply by depicting it as going on among the gods." In another Poussin, his 1624 Reclining Venus with Cupid, the presence of two ordinary shepherds peering at the goddess's shamelessly sensual pose underscores this moral divide and artful license. In a highly religious age, in other words, the same artists who with one hand painted devout Christian scenes, with the other painted scenes celebrating sins Christianity strongly condemned. Sometimes these artistic impulses crossed: Poussin's 1627 Venus Grieving for Adonis is strikingly reminiscent of a Mary Magdalene grieving over the fallen Christ.

One newspaper, Düsseldorf's Rheinische Post, complained of too much flesh and even counted a total of 1,000 nude individuals. Curator Mai has also been bracing himself for possible complaints by feminists against an exhibit that depicts women without a single work by a woman artist. Nonetheless, the show is a hit and draws an unusually large number of youthful couples who come to enjoy ennobled eroticism while holding hands. One 30-something couple, Ute Chevalier, a transit employee, and her husband Laurent, who teaches French, praised it especially for the way the show flies in the face of the commercial nudity and sensuality washing over contemporary culture. "Here they're not selling us anything," said Ute. "It's great to see it in its pure form."

By a strictly unofficial headcount, the throng's favorite pictures appear to be Cranach's charming 1530 Venus and Cupid as a Honey Thief, in which the goddess comforts the winged child, now wailing like any mortal youngster, about his bee-stings; Cabanel's remarkably liquid 1863 Birth of Venus, which despite its kitschy squadron of airborne cherubs is said to have later inspired modern painters from Pierre-Auguste Renoir to Amedeo Modigliani; and Jacopo Tintoretto's 1555 Vulcan Surprising Venus and Mars, which shows the goddess being confronted by her suspicious husband Vulcan — while Mars, the big brave god of war, hides under the bed. There's even a beagle yelping in the foreground giving the game away. Old Tintoretto knew a thing or two about bedroom farce, even on Mount Olympus.