Art review: ‘Aphrodite and the Gods of Love’ at the Getty Villa


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If your image of Aphrodite’s birth is of a lithe strawberry blond demurely covering her nudity as she gracefully surfs to shore on a cockleshell, in the manner of Botticelli’s famous Renaissance canvas of Venus, her Roman version, you might want to imagine again. One common source of the myth (there are a few) could not paint a more different picture.

The Titans, predecessors to the Olympian gods, were the children of Uranus, ruler of the sky and a terrible brute, and the Earth-mother Gaia. The young Titan Cronus, in a bloody and successful struggle for power against his savage father, took his scythe and, with a fearsome blow, severed Uranus’ genitals. He threw them into the sea.


Matter was fertilized by divinity -- albeit in a sexually charged act of violence -- creating a bubbling froth of sea foam (aphros, in the Greek). Aphrodite, embodiment of celestial flesh, washed up on the shore.

This epic story of patricidal rage and castration hardly invokes Botticelli’s limpid sensuality. For a fuller, definitely stranger, sometimes even horrifying but finally truer interpretation, a visit to the Getty Villa is in order.

‘Aphrodite and the Gods of Love,’ which opens Wednesday, is a fine exhibition that restores the fullness -- as well as the occasionally creepy eccentricity -- of the marvelous mythological figure. Organized by Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, which has a large collection of Greek and Roman antiquities, it has been somewhat reconfigured for the Villa’s smaller gallery spaces by Getty curator David Saunders.

Both museums have been involved in widely publicized restitution of looted antiquities to source countries in recent years. This show is partly the result of a new international cooperation allowed by those amends. Italian museums have lent some exceptional works. They include the eye-boggling, second century ‘Sleeping Hermaphrodite’ from the Palazzo Massimo in Rome, plus the larger-than-life ‘Aphrodite of Capua’ from the National Archaeological Museum in Naples -- a figure that could be called the bluntly imposing goddess of loving warfare.

The exhibition, billed as the first to study the goddess in depth, is substantial if not overly large. A preview during installation shows that it includes a rich and sometimes head-turning mix of sex and violence, as well as a diverse array of characters associated with Aphrodite, such as the mischievous little Eros (or Cupid). By the time it’s done, a visitor is likely to come away with a far less sentimental picture of Aphrodite than the one pop culture cranks out, from Ava Gardner to Kylie Minogue.

The first room opens with the most conventional image of a goddess identified with love and beauty, although it quickly departs from that somewhat narrow ideal. A long-lost cult statue by Praxiteles, famous in its day and believed to be the first to show Aphrodite unclothed, preparing for her bath, is the loose model for several carved and painted versions here. Praxiteles transformed the Greek tradition of portraying only men as nudes, creating for Aphrodite an immediate association with power.


While a hand gracefully placed across Aphrodite’s pudenda or covering a breast might at first seem to be a subtle sign of modesty, it soon dawns that the artist is up to something else. The gestures in fact draw eyes to specific zones of erotic satisfaction. Coupled with the act of bathing, Aphrodite’s promise of carnal pleasure is encompassed within a restorative aura of purity: Sex is the opposite of dirty.

Nearby, that promise becomes explicit in several shards of painted vases, clay and bronze reliefs and a carved gemstone. Scenes of lovemaking between men and women, probably courtesans or prostitutes, as well as between adult men and adolescent males engaged in rituals of cultivation and masculine education were common in Greek art. Another layer of sensuality comes from the simple physical tactility of objects that were meant to be looked at while also being held in the hand: One sexy relief is shaped on the back of a mirror, and a painted scene unfolds inside a drinking vessel.

A corridor between galleries includes several small figurines from ancient Sumeria, Phoenicia, Egypt and Cyprus, some dating to 6000 BC; with attenuated female bodies, oversized eyes and fixed stares, they exude the wild aura of extraterrestrials. They also indicate that the mythic Greek goddess actually arose from older figures known in the Middle East. Praxiteles might have been Athenian, but his famous cult-statue was located in a Greek settlement in modern Turkey, notably on a narrow peninsula surrounded on three sides by the sea.

Seeing these crude votive figurines makes the sordid tale of Aphrodite’s birth easier to grasp, providing excellent preparation for the next room. There, things get messy pretty fast.

Aphrodite’s liaisons were numerous -- husband Hephaistus, god of metalsmiths; Ares, god of war; Hermes, messenger of the gods; Dionysus, god of wine; and assorted mortals, including Adonis and Anchises. Her devious role in the Judgment of Paris, leading to the epochal Trojan War, is represented in a lovely fresco fragment and sculptures where, anticipating the Christian story of a seductive Eve, a sensuous woman holds the prized apple. As for Eros, he’s done up to the nines in the Getty’s own pudgy terracotta figure, impishly draped in the power-suit of a Hercules-style lion skin.

It’s the marble ‘Sleeping Hermaphrodite,’ though, that is the show’s most riveting work. Related to the child of Hermes and Aphrodite -- hence the name -- the male and female genders unite into one sexually seductive being.

A tour-de-force of carving, the prostrate figure’s body corkscrews in space, as if writhing in an erotic dream. One foot is tangled in the bedsheet, flexed toes pulling it taut, while the opposite elbow is similarly caught. The delicious face is both masculine and feminine, a seamless vision of idealized beauty. Despite the figure’s bodily contortion, that face is utterly serene.

Walking around the sculpture, body parts shift in and out of view, adding a delirious measure of erotic interaction to the single figure. No wonder a hermaphrodite’s complex symbolism includes the personification of sacred sexual union.

The final room, dedicated to various forms of Greek and Roman goddess-worship, includes a large water jar with florid red-figure scenes of Aphrodite enthroned. (It’s attributed to the Meidias Painter, who specialized in scenes of women.) A clever map of the Mediterranean identifies numerous cities by their ancient coins, each bearing Aphrodite’s image in a different guise. The cash reveals her social value, plus her symbolic diversity and geographical sweep.

The gallery is dominated by the 7-foot-tall, partially draped Aphrodite of Capua, who rests her considerable marble weight on one leg while her other foot is firmly placed atop the helmet of her warrior-lover, Ares. (Donatello’s Renaissance bronze of David, whose foot toys with the severed, helmeted head of a vanquished Goliath, is a variation on the ancient composition.) Aphrodite’s sturdy but graceful arms are raised, since she probably once held up an enormous shield, long-since lost.

You don’t need to see those warrior’s armaments, though, to feel what the unknown sculptor was after. This authoritative figure is a frank reckoning of sexuality with power. Bloodlust gets blunt meaning. Aphrodite and the Gods of Love, Getty Villa, 17985 Pacific Coast Highway, Pacific Palisades, (310) 440-7300, through July 9. Closed Tuesday.


More art reviews from the Los Angeles Times

--Christopher Knight