Viewing Canova’s Sculptures
Dr. Malcolm Baker, Senior Research Fellow in 18th Century Studies at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Canova’s sculptures, including the Hope Venus, may be seen as a turning point in the history of sculpture viewing. The production of such highly finished works at the end of the eighteenth century assumed ways of looking at sculpture that differed significantly form those common a century earlier. At the end of the twentieth century the context and viewing of sculpture and the range of meanings that may be read on to tit have again attracted attention. The very ambivalence of responses to Canova’s work, and to his female figures in particular, raises questions that may have relevance for those involved in contemporary art practice.

When in 1817 Canova’s marble group of the Three Graces, commissioned by the 6th Duke of Bedford three years earlier, arrived at Woburn, it was placed within a temple designed with the specific and sole purpose of housing the sculpture. Situated at the end of the sculpture gallery containing both antique statuary and works by modern sculptors. The Temple was approached through this interior. Above the double doors was a bronze relief of the eagle of Jove, the father of the Graces in classical mythology. Only when the doors were opened could the marble group be seen, placed on a circular plinth on which it could be turned as the viewer gazed from outside the proscenium arch which framed it. Presented in this way, the work was above all sculpture to be looked at closely, its subtly judged and delicately worked surfaces to be given sustained and detailed attention.

Before this date most sculptures had overt functions that were not primarily aesthetic; they were place in contexts in which certain types of viewing and response were anticipated, the devotional figure being set in a chapel and the statue of a ruler in a public place where his authority could be registered visually. Canova’s sculptures on the other hand were made for contexts where they had no other function than to be looked at and appreciated as sculptures. Correspondingly, their surfaces were given a subtlety that was hitherto only expected of small-scale sculptures – bronzes and ivories – to be kept in the Kunst- or Wunderkammer and turned in the hand of the spectator. Like these small-scale pieces, Canova’s works have poses that were worked out with great care, on the assumption that they would be viewed critically from all angles as they were rotated on turntables, often viewed by candlelight.

Yet the viewing of such sculptures was, and is, not simply a neutral and unproblematic aesthetic experience. The ability to look at, appreciate and discuss sculpture was one of those accomplishments that was learned and practised above all by young men on the Grand Tour. The viewing of the Three Graces group within its Temple or the reclining nude figure of Pauline Borghese (turned by a mechanism within the wooden couch below) should be thus understood as a predominantly male activity. But while the language recommended for the appreciation of figures such as the Hope Venus might have been concerned with aesthetics and the ideal. The very representation of a female figure in three dimensional, large scale form, albeit in white marble, carried with it the possibilities of reading on to it a very different set of narratives. This was indeed recognised by Joseph Spence when, in Polymetis (his book of 1755 about ancient poets and antique sculpture), he described Venus as ‘the dangerous goddess’. The decidedly ambivalent reactions to the Three Graces in recent years, when the sculpture was described in the press not as ‘it’ but ‘they’, suggests that such figures are seen as more than representations and that the implicit dangers touched upon by Spence remain. But how else might such sculptures be viewed today by a range of spectators? What new meanings might they be invested with in the context of a public gallery? The re-contextualisation of the Hope Venus in this exhibition will no doubt bring into play very different assumptions about the viewing of sculpture form those made by Thomas Hope in 1811 when he place the figure in his gallery against rich drapery ‘in order to bring out its white contours and delicate reflections’. But whatever the range of responses, it is likely that close and sustained attention is one again involved and that gendered viewing remains an issue.

Through the Gate of The Harem
Dr. Urszula Sulakowska
University of Leeds

As a sculptural construction and an idealized academic study, few critics would deny that the hope Venus is a masterwork. Nonetheless, there are deliberate idiosyncrasies in the form which are subtly designed to stimulate voyeuristic male pleasure. Canova hides and dissimulates these titillating aspects by handling the total marble unit as a rhetorical demonstration of classicizing purism.

In collaboration with photographer Jerry Hardman–Jones, Sheila Gaffney and Linda Schwab have rediscovered startling aspects of the statue which usually pass unnoticed in an evenly-lit, busy, public gallery. The intimacy of the close–focus lens reveals details such as the sensual ripple of skin sliding over the contours of the hips, or the neat back–sides up–lifted to invite touch. No intellectual formal Ideal, the photographs vividly recall Venus” nature as the whore of the gods. The Hope Venus herself looks sideways and does not return the gaze of the male viewer. Gaffney and Schwab are returning Venus’ gaze for her by displacing her own look to the eye of the camera lens. It has become the signifier of Venus’ own viewpoint. Hence, instead of remaining a passive object of male sexual desire, Venus has herself become a Subject criticising patriarchal sexual domination. Thereby, Canova’s true intention in making the statue is revealed. With the hope of the camera Venus ‘objects’ to being turned into a sexual commodity with neither will nor sexual desire of her own.

Such photographs stand as an accusation of traditional art-history which has ignored the demeaning character of the female nude in Western art. Fore example, in the statue, Venus touches her own nipple in the antique gesture of modesty. But in the photographic close-up one is forced to ask WHOSE hand is REALLY touching her? The photograph reveals that the conventional classical gesture is, in fact the substitution of a Subject signifier: Venus’ hand signifies the male hand of her owner. Women are taught not to touch themselves in public, for their bodies are not theirs to own. To do so is a direct sexual invitation.

The ‘female’ gaze, however, is more problematic than the substitution of the ‘male gaze’ by the gaze of a woman. The female gaze is not simply the opposite of the male gaze. A polemical inversion, such as the above instance, begs the further question of WHAT it is exactly that the female will see?

In contrast to the ‘male gaze’, the ‘female’ sees much more broadly. It perceives the Symbolic order of the patriarchy as but one element in an unlimited field of flux, change and transcient meanings. The Symbolic order is the inflexible power-structure of authoritarian language itself. It consists of signing systems which define the socio-political character of the male ego. The male gaze is itself the chief signifier of the Symbolic order of language.

The female gaze has kinship with all similar outsider groups who are absented from the central domain of power by class, race and sexuality. As the artist psycho-analyst Bracha Lichtenberg Ettinger1 points out, these ‘female’, or (to use her term) ‘matrixial’, viewpoints are not vague intuitions but have the quality of spaces within the ill-fitting codes of authority.

What is ‘woman’ as a sign in the Symbolic order was a question posited by Freud. In fact, Freud’s question has little to do with real human biology. ‘Woman’ or ‘the feminine’ is an abstract concept related to the structure of power in a society. Hence, the French psycho-analyst Jacques Lacan translated Freud’s ideas into a more subtle notion of the construction of the male ego as being synonymous and synchronous with learning and accepting authoritarian language structures.

In these, ‘woman’ as a sign became the absent Other, that which was rejected, but which served also as a control on the definition of the male ego. She was the lost object of desire, and hence, mute, with no access or right to language. The Hoe Venus as a silent marble statue and, yet, the object of intense male desire, well exemplifies the situation of all women in relation to the patriarchy.

It follows that the ‘Wunderkammer’ itself is produced by a quintessentially feminine / matrixial gaze. The Wunderkammer is a private collection of objects gathered together according to personal taste and inspiration, not according to an objective system of classification as in the case of the contemporary museum. Like the matrixial gaze, the Wunderkammer is a broken system, asystematic. It predates the museum. In fact, compared to the state museum of our time, the Wunderkammer seems like a vernacular ‘museum pidgin’ language. However, as in the case of the female matrix, this impression can be misleading because pidgin English has a constant vocabulary, structure and syntax. It is a ‘true’ living language of its own and not a mere derivative of the Queen’s English. One cannot just leap in and make it up as none goes along. Yet, both Wunderkammer and pidgin are minutely reflective of the main-line authoritarian systems of communication. In the same way the female matrixial gaze actually incorporates the patriarchy as one term in its own more wide-ranging forms of discourse. Many of the objects in the Wunderkammer of ‘the feminine’ are fetishized objects, that is they are invested with matrixial / phallic power intended to strengthen the self-image of their owner. They are not the conventional symbols of power which quantify gain and loss. Instead, the Wunderkammer focuses on the qualities of things, on those aspects which connote, desire: things to bring out and wonder at, wishing to possess the source of the objects, rather that the objects themselves: tokens, mementoes, keepsakes, magical artefacts. More that objects, they are a ‘force-field’ of hope and speculation: a potential for the future. Such collectables are not structured into some great authoritative narrative but are collaged into a personalised version of reality in which their owner is the centre, not the state, nor history. The feminine Wunderkammer interfaces history and personal myth. It encompasses historical Time, the realm of the Symbolic. But in the scope of its surveillance, the feminine gaze also looks into the unknown and unnamed.

1 Bracha Lichtenberg Ettinger, Matrix and Metamorphosis, Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies, 4.3 (1992), 176 - 208

Originally published in Object 1994, a book produced by Sheila Gaffney and Linda Schwab to coincide with the exhibition "Wunderkammer - the female gaze objectified", with contributions by the artists, Jerry Hardman Jones, Malcolm Baker and Urszula Szulakowska
Exhibition Essays