Antiquities, Art, Exhibitions and Installations, J. Paul Getty Museum, Photographs, Film, and Video

From Malibu to Cyprus and Back Again

Cindy Crawford, Ferre 3 Malibu / Herb Ritts

Cindy Crawford, Ferré 3, Malibu, Herb Ritts, 1993. Gelatin silver print, 14 x 11 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2011.18.6. Gift of Herb Ritts Foundation. © Herb Ritts Foundation

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.

Oil Jar in the Shape of Aphrodite at Her Birth / Greek

Oil Jar in the Shape of Aphrodite at Her Birth, Greek, 380–370 B.C. Terracotta, pigment, and gold, 8 3/8 in. high. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Catharine Page Perkins Fund

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.

Statuette of Aphrodite Emerging from the Sea / Greek or Roman

Statuette of Aphrodite Emerging from the Sea, Greek or Roman, 1st century B.C. or 1st century A.D. Marble, 43 in. high. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Frank B. Bemis Fund

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.

Woman in Sea, Hawaii / Herb Ritts

Woman in Sea, Hawaii, Herb Ritts, 1988. Gelatin silver print, 24 x 20 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2012.23.31. Gift of Herb Ritts Foundation. © Herb Ritts Foundation

It’s hard for me to see this without bringing to mind the many ancient representations of Aphrodite wringing out her hair.

Statuette of Aphrodite Wringing Out Her Hair / Greek or Roman

Statuette of Aphrodite Wringing Out Her Hair, Greek or Roman, 100 B.C.–A.D. 70. Marble, 21 5/8 in. high. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Classical Department Exchange Fund

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.

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      It’s been 125 years since Van Gogh’s death, today we celebrate his life’s work.


      5 Ways to See Van Gogh’s Irises

      Through observations, visitor conversations, and some sneaky eavesdropping, we’ve compiled the top 5 ways people enjoy this painting.

      1. In a Crowd
        One of the most obvious ways that people see the painting is in a crowd. The gallery is almost always filled, and you might have to wait before you can get up close. The anticipation builds as you start in the back row, and slowly move until you are close enough to see the brushstrokes of Van Gogh’s thick paint.

      2. Online
        David from Colorado said that this was his first visit, but he had already seen the painting online. In addition to being available through the Getty’s Open Content program, the painting is often seen on social media. Just search #irises on Instagram for a taste of the painting’s popularity. 

      3. Alone
        If you arrive right at 10 a.m. when the museum opens, the quiet gallery provides a perfect backdrop to really examine the painting. Solitude and seclusion gives the gallery a sense of intimacy. 

      4. Multiple Times
        Repeat visits can give rise to multiple interpretations. Is it a melancholy or joyous painting? Expressive or depressive? 

      5. Internationally
        Visitors from all across the world viewed this famous Van Gogh. In just one hour you can hear multiple languages—French, Italian, Chinese, Korean, German, and more. Irises seems to rise above cultural boundaries—a Dutch painting inspired by Japanese ukiyo-e prints—to strike an emotional resonance amongst all viewers. 

      What is your favorite lens to view Van Gogh’s work through? 

      07/29/15

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