I’m writing a series of papers for my Western Survey of Art and Architecture course focusing on representations of gender in different eras of art (Doing it for the honors credits; damn you RIT for trying to make me a more educated person!). For my first quarter paper I decided to focus on Classical Greek gender ideals as seen in Praxiteles’s Knidian Aphrodite and Polykleitos’s Doryphoros (Coming at the end of this quarter: Portrayals of Adam, Eve, and the often feminized serpent in Renaissance artwork). I don’t want to explain it when I can just let you read the paper, so here it is. It was actually pretty fun to learn more about this subject, I hope you guys enjoy!
Classical Greek artwork is generally recognized as a depiction of the real and the ideal; an attempt at mimesis that also reflects the qualities found most desirable during the time period. While one might imagine that this would lead to work focused entirely on aesthetic appeal, the artwork is also heavily conceptual. Classical Greek statuary not only reflected the rigid gender roles seen in Ancient Greek culture, it contributed to the culture’s development and enforcement. By viewing works embodying the perceived otherness and shy sensuality of women, such as Praxiteles’s Knidian Aphrodite, and the presented powerful norm of men, as seen in Polykleitos’s Doryphoros, Greek audiences internalized and then performed kyriarchal gender roles. Analysis of the subject and style of these two statues will enable understanding of the gender divide in Greek culture and how that divide manifests itself in Classical artwork.
While the subject of Doryphoros followed the traditional Classical model, the Knidian Aphrodite revolutionized Greek statuary. Previous sculptures showed women clothed without exception, and while a number of artists used wet drapery to display women’s bodies in an acceptable manner none had made the leap to establishing a female nude the equivalent of the common Greek male nude. Praxiteles’s method of bridging the gap and depicting an unclothed woman—without causing too much of an outrage—is considered inspired. By choosing Aphrodite, the goddess of love and sexuality, as his subject, he had found a way to justify female nudity. By toeing the line between sensual and modest, dignified yet welcoming, Praxiteles depicted the nude in a way considered inoffensive to his audience.
The need to justify female nudity while male nudity was considered commonplace already reflects Greek ideas about gender. For a man to appear naked conferred his power, his strong body and equally strong mind, while for a woman to appear naked would be indecent and confer immodesty. It is important to remember that the ancient Greeks viewed man and woman as dichotomies. One was defined as being the opposite of the other. As men were considered the dominant members of society women were the ones being defined as opposite; yet, interestingly enough, still defined as the “other”. In the words of Nanette Salomon, “the culturally constructed terms of femininity and masculinity in the ancient world were mutually dependent and reflexive fabrications whose definition depended upon their socially assigned differences, one from the other”. Salomon’s statement offers an explanation for why activities deemed as masculine were off limits for women. As the opposite of men, women were viewed as incapable of participating in the male sphere. Continue reading