Having spent a good deal of time with Aphrodite of late, I found in Herb Ritts: L.A. Style a real feast—not just for the eyes, but for the mind. The two exhibitions overlap in their focus on the seductive allure of desirable bodies, and one theme that is inescapable is the idealization of female beauty. Indeed, what strikes me most of all is how certain motifs, poses, and themes that recur in the presentation of Aphrodite and her Roman counterpart, Venus, resound across the centuries and are manifest in many of Ritts’s photographs.
It’s right there in the luscious image of Cindy Crawford that adorns the street banners advertising the show. A true goddess of beauty, she poses for the camera to reveal the full extent of her left leg in an unabashed display of sexuality. The scene occurs on the Malibu seashore, yet the sensual juxtaposition of sand, surf, and evening gown seems natural, and for anyone who knows a little about Aphrodite, it’s only reasonable to think of the goddess’s birth. For she was said to have emerged fully formed from the waves, first approaching the island of Kythera and then settling on Cyprus. The moment of the goddess’s first appearance captured the minds and eyes of Greek and Roman artists. Take, for example, this Athenian oil-jar that shows Aphrodite rising from waves fully formed, and already adorned with jewelry.
Somewhat later, and in a different medium, this magnificent statuette depicts the goddess striding forth from the waters with drapery billowing around her—not dissimilar from Ritts’s presentation of Cindy Crawford.
Ritts did not set out to make direct reference to these ancient images, but certain motifs of feminine beauty are deeply, culturally engrained in western society, and their occurrence in Ritts’s work has a lineage that can be traced back to the ancient Mediterranean. Another of Ritts’s photographs features a woman standing in the sea, her long hair lying wet down her back.
It’s hard for me to see this without bringing to mind the many ancient representations of Aphrodite wringing out her hair.
Statues such as this one were probably inspired by a famous painting, now lost, by the Greek artist Apelles (about 350–300 B.C.) that depicted the goddess in this fashion. It was said that Apelles was moved to paint this scene after he had seen the famously beatiful Phryne—a courtesan, and supposedly also the model for Praxiteles’ renowned statue of Aphrodite at Knidos—walking naked into the sea.
These are, of course, subjective associations, heavily informed by my own involvement with Aphrodite and the Gods of Love. But the juxtaposition of the two exhibitions sets in motion a compelling dialogue between the ancient and the modern, and invites us to explore notions of beauty and the methods of their representation. Aphrodite and Herb Ritts will be running side by side at the Villa and the Center for the next five weeks, and I encourage you to seek out your own points of connection.