Thursday, February 19, 2009

The (paleolithic) male gaze

A review article in the February 6 issue of Science traces the earliest expressions of human art, some of which apparently go back 100,000 years or more. Not mentioned in the article is an artifact I wrote about 20 years ago in the Globe, the "Dancing Venus of Galgenberg."

This delightful figurine is about 3-inches tall and is carved from green serpentine stone. It was discovered in Germany at a site that had previously yielded the bones of Ice Age animals, including reindeer and mammoths, together with charcoal and flint flakes. Carbon dating suggests an age of about 30,000 years.

The statuette is lithe and saucily posed, a real "pin-up" among the many other female statuettes caved by our Cro-Magnon ancestors. More than 60 of these figurines, called Venuses by archeologists, have been discovered from France to Siberia. Not only is the Galgenberg Venus older than the others, but she differs from them in startling ways.

The typical Ice Age Venus is shaped in clay, or carved in stone or ivory. She is grotesquely rotund and rigidly symmetrical, with dropping breasts, bulging belly and exaggerated buttocks. The head and limbs are usually merely suggested by the sculptor as knobs or stumps. Most archeologists believe these Venuses were fertility symbols, or icons of a Mother Goddess revered by the Cro-Magnons as source of life and protector.

The Dancing Venus of Galgenberg is unique. Her head and limbs are carefully depicted, and even accented with openings in the stone. Her left arm is raised with the hand behind the head. She stands with her weight resting insouciantly on one foot, and the right hand is placed on the hip. One breast is shown in profile, the other is carved in low relief. In my column, I drew attention to Betty Grable's familiar pose.

The Dancing Venus is no Mother Goddess. This is a chick with sex appeal. Cheesecake since the dawn of time.