She modelled for hundreds of artists. Her first-hand experience of art is invaluable. It took me some years to arrange an interview, given her extremely busy schedule, and the fact that her personal assistant behaves like a 9-year-old boy who just got a toy bow for his birthday.
I: Miss Venus, you’ve modelled for most of the greatest artists in these parts of the universe, and my readers would love to know what it was like. Who was your favourite artist?
Venus: Modelling for God was, perhaps, most rewarding and memorable.
I: You mean God that created the real you?
V: Oh, no. I was born out of sea-foam. It was rather an accident than a plan. Sitting for God was my first modelling job. I had a breakdown when I saw the result. He came up with a perfect sphere, and I thought God thought I was fat.
I: Is it a lost sculpture? I have not been aware of it until this very moment.
V: You have always been aware of it. It’s high up in the sky, the second planet from the sun. God has an extraordinary sense of humour, you know. And he’s a better artist than most of your greatest ones, except, perhaps, Matisse. God was the top minimalist before minimalism was invented! I remember Him telling me, “Sweetie, you’re so sexy I’m gonna make ya the hottest planet”. And he did, even though Mercury is closer to the sun than me! Mercury would bitch about this for ages.
I: God a minimalist? Well, the scale of his work can hardly be classified as minimal. Miss Venus, before we get to Matisse, can we talk about his predecessors? Let’s begin with the Classic epoch. Venus de Milo and her Greek and Roman “sisters”.
Venus de Milo, by Alexandros of Antioch, Between 130 and 100 BC
V: I loved modelling for the Greeks. It was fun to sit for someone who desired you, but was afraid you’d notice he did: the side effect of being a goddess. It helped to control the quality though: sculptors knew if I didn’t like their work, I could do something terrible to them. The problem with them, as I see it now, was they were too afraid to improvise. I guess the god for economy and finance is frustrated with the Greeks for the same reason nowadays.
I: I understand there was a gap in your modelling career for some twelve hundred years, until the Renaissance took hold of Italy. Old gods fell out of favour for quite some time. Was it a difficult time for you?
V: Believe me, old gods, and especially goddesses, can reach a very amicable understanding with any new ones. It was my own decision: I was tired of the Roman Classicism and wanted something new, someone new, unafraid of me as a goddess. I got Sandro at last. I remember Botticelli was very ambitious and stubborn. I kept telling him the shell was totally off, but he insisted a giant spiral one would look like a twisted vagina and “we want a more subtle metaphor here”.
Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus, 1484-1486
I: Did Botticelli have any doubts about showing nudity?
V: Never. He was so full of bullshit ideas about divine intellectual love, that he gave me the head of a different woman. Divine love… People with PhDs call it Neoplatonism, and uneducated masses get to know it as a striptease show.
Making me wear Simonetta’s face! I’d turn a Greek sculptor into stone for that, but I just couldn’t be angry with a blue-eyed man with golden locks. Besides, it was partially my fault. I let Cupid loose once, when I was sitting for Sandro, and he made Ms Vespucci femme fatale for all the men he could reach with his arrows.
I: So, were you dissatisfied with the painting?
V: No, I got full of ideas instead. I thought I’d love to see myself change the pose, for one thing. Sandro wanted me to stand in the same old classical way which I’d grown to hate already. I looked around and thought I could knock on Giorgione’s door.
Giorgione, Sleeping_Venus, c.1510
I: He put you to sleep, launching the reclining nude tradition that would dominate the male- controlled art world for centuries.
V: It was a very novel idea back then! A sleeping goddess is almost accessible, she can’t turn you into a frog for staring. But she is not sexually available. Very few men think of having sex with a sleeping woman: they want to wake her up first. But they won’t dare to wake up a goddess. It’s a bit circular: you can stare at me as much as you want, but you know you’d never have any physical contact with me. All of your glossy magazine culture is built around the concept. I didn’t even want to cover myself, but he said observers needed one more reminder of the “look but don’t touch” principle.
I: So this is how you met Titian I guess: he worked on the landscape in Giorgione’s painting, and then, some thirty years later, he asked you to model for him. In his painting, he woke you up. Some people say you stopped being a goddess in this painting, because you’d opened your eyes. Why did you agree to become an ordinary woman for Titian?
Titian, Venus of Urbino, 1538
V: I guess we both felt platonic love had plateau’ed out. Protestants were marching across Europe making life a self-inflicted misery for most people along the way, and we thought we could take a stand for natural passion. Besides, Titian hated lies. No sane woman would agree to sleep naked in the woods. And if she’s really asleep, she won’t cover herself the way I did for Giorgione. Titian promised he’d take Giorgione’s Venus and make her alive. So he put me to bed, but painted me very much awake.
I: In Titian’s painting, you are aware of the observer looking at you, and you look playful and welcoming. You are presented to the observer as a sex object, not a goddess. Did that make you uneasy at the time?
V: Quite the opposite. I and Titian wanted to tell women that the best strategy for a mortal woman was to become a personal goddess to the man she fell in love with. I’ve always believed the death of a feminist is on the tip of a Cupid’s arrow, but instead of the end, it should be a new beginning, a transformation. I met a young artist in Venice some ten years after working for Titian, Paolo Veronese. He understood that concept.
I: He mostly painted you in a conflict situation with a man, with you subtly having the upper hand in it. at least temporary.
V: Yes, Veronese made a point of living here and now. Titian painted me with Adonis at the moment when Adonis was leaving me to die on his stupid hunt. The lure of the worldly affairs turned out to be more powerful than love. I told Titian I won’t be modelling for the scene and he cut my neck in half. Just look at the painting! He was angry and jealous I was modelling for Paolo.
Titian, Venus and Adonis, ca.1553
And Paolo painted me at the moment of happiness. If you can’t change a man, enjoy him unchanged while you can, I say.
Paolo Veronese, Venus and Adonis, 1580
With all Paolo’s love for theatrical effects, I’d say he empowered women with his art, as much as was possible then.
I: Did you model for Cranach? He made quite a number of Venuses at the time.
V: You could as well ask if I modelled for Balthus. Do I look like a teenage girl about to lose her virginity?
I: No, you certainly don’t. After Venice, what was your next modelling job?
V: It was Rubens, of course, but we didn’t quite manage to pull it off. He was at the other extremity to Cranach: I quit when I realised he was offering me unlimited cakes to make me closer to his ideals. It took me another thirty years to get back to form after sessions with him.
Rubens, Venus at a Mirror, 1615
I: So, who was the next lucky artist after you’d dieted your way back to slenderness?
V: It was that moustached Spaniard, Velazquez, who mostly had to paint the Spanish Royal family. He had an idea that I thought quite revolutionary at the time. He didn’t want my face to be seen. So he painted me from the back, looking into the mirror, but the observer can’t really see my face clearly.
Diego Velazquez, Venus, 1647-51
I: Was it because of poor quality mirrors?
V: You can’t be serious. It is because we wanted to enable the observer to imagine the face they believed to be ideally beautiful.
I: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and I personally put Velazquez’s version of you above Titian’s. I can also see you’ve changed your hair.
V: I hated being blond for Rubens. I pretty much hated everything about myself that was, you know, Rubens’ legacy. Besides, Diego thought dark hair, pale body, and dark sheets would make for a much better image of beauty than my sun-tanned body against the white Titian’s bed. One needs contrast to see beauty. Diego was convinced he needed red, for passion, and grey to make the body look alive against it. He was centuries ahead of his time in terms of using colours.
I: Yes, the French book on simultaneous colours that influenced Impressionists was almost two hundred years away.
So, Velazques was creating ideal beauty not on the canvas, but in the mind of the beholder. This sounds very much like the art of the 20th century. Did you meet any interesting artist between Diego and, if I understood you right, Matisse?
V: It is painful to admit, but for a time, I was infatuated with Cabanel. Until I realised it was going backwards, to Classical Greece, but with a rotten flavour of bourgeois debauchery. It was a dead-end. He turned me into a common whore and I thought to cut off his manhood. Instead, I cut inspiration off him for the rest of his life.
Alexandre Cabanel, The Birth of Venus, 1863
I: This is why he is now famous for not allowing Manet to exhibit at the official Salon more than for his art. But did you sit for Manet instead? I mean his Olympia?
V: As much as I loved Eduard, I only modelled for works with my name on it. No, it was that famous courtesan, Olympia, exactly as “it says on the tin”.
I: So, who was your next favourite? Picasso?
V: Picasso was a first-class fetishist when it came to a female body. I said I didn’t have enough anuses to model for him. He laughed. And then he used Cranach and Rubens as his inspiration. And that was totally wrong, you know now it was not me.
Dali tried to approach me, but I just couldn’t stand his wife, Gala. It was all about suppressed desires, Freud, and Gala’s ideas of group sex as if I were indeed the woman that Cabanel had painted. I mean I’d seen it all in the good old Greece and Rome. It was boring two millenia before their crazy family decided it was news. Dali was a vengeful man. I am sure you saw his photograph, the Dream of Venus?
Murray Korman with Salvador Dali, Dream of Venus, 1939
I: And then came the turn of Matisse.
V: Matisse was my 20th-century genius. God sculpted me as a sphere, but that was so conceptual I am still not quite sure I get the idea. Matisse came very close to abstraction. He cut my head off, he cut my arms and legs off, but it is my essence that he showed. It is my 20th century concept.
Matisse, Venus, 1952
I: I am sure many people would say it may remind the observer of a female body, but ideal beauty?
V: Then you’d have to explain why it is the ideal of beauty. I need to go and see a very promising artist now.
I: Anyone I know?
V: No, but I hope not yet.