The Human Body in the Art World

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There is no debate that today’s civilization is obsessed with the human body. Plastic surgery exists to perfect the flaws people find with their bodies. Make-up exists to disguise imperfections and beautify. Exercise has become less about health and more and more about improving physical appearance. So it is safe to say that nowadays society focuses on beauty and obtaining the ideal, perfect silhouette, but people have focused on the body to the point of obsession almost since the beginning of time. This is known today because the human body has been a major theme in artwork for hundreds upon thousands of centuries.

Throughout time, different cultures have portrayed the human body in a myriad of fashions through the use of art. Certain body parts may be emphasized or concealed, some artworks show bodies in a more idealistic or surrealistic manner, as opposed to a realistic manner, and vice versa. Although there are countless works of art that focus on the human body, there are five in particular that show how various cultures of varying time periods, portray the human body: the Venus of Willendorf, the Woman from Syros, Menkaure and Khamerernebty, the Snake Goddess, and Weary Herakles.

The first work of art that focuses on the human body is from the Paleolithic Age, dates from 28,000 to 25,000 BCE, and is known as the Venus of Willendorf. It was given this name after its discovery in Willendorf, Austria. Made of limestone and at a mere four and a half inches high, the Venus of Willendorf was thought to have been a talisman. A talisman is a small figure believed to have magic powers and to transfer its magic to those who possess it.

Although small in stature, this work of art showcases exaggerated body parts of a nude woman. The breasts and stomach - with arms perched atop - are round and pronounced, and the pubic area is clearly defined. The ball-like shapes of the body are due in part to the sculptor’s response to the natural shape of the limestone that was chosen for carving, but mainly because these anatomical exaggerations suggest that the Venus of Willendorf served as a fertility image. This is suggested of the tiny figurine because the body parts that are exaggerated are typical Paleolithic representations of women, whose child-bearing capabilities ensured the survival of the species.

It is rather obvious that, due to its disproportionate shape, the sculptor of the Venus of Willendorf was not concerned with realism or naturalism. This female figurine is an idealization in the eyes of people from the Old Stone Age; they saw the ideal woman as a fertile woman and the anatomical exaggerations represent the features a fertile woman should have. The lack of facial features and the simple representation of hair show that the face was not an important part of the body. It also emphasizes and reinforces the fact that people from the Paleolithic Era were concerned with the fertility of a woman and saw beauty in signs of fertility, not in their faces or hairstyles. Such a stress of particular features shows that the human body is a main theme in the Venus of Willendorf. This theme is not only apparent in the tiny Willendorf figure, however.

A second work of art that represents the human figure is the Woman from Syros. Its name originates from its discovery sometime between 2,500 and 2,300 BCE in Syros, Greece, now modern day Crete. Though larger in size than the Venus of Willendorf, the Woman from Syros stands only at one foot, six inches and is made of marble. It is assumed that it was meant to lay flat on a surface because it is only half an inch thick. It is also a figure of a nude woman, but the Woman from Syros is in no way round in shape like the Venus of Willendorf. The sculptor of the Woman from Syros rendered the body schematically in a series of triangles. Its body tapers from top to bottom; from an exceptionally board shoulder line to tiny feet. The breasts and pubic...
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