The Big Venus Updated

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Barnett Suskind’s Paintings by Donald Kuspit

There seemed to me in the nodding of the faceless but carefully coiffed head, in the gentle folding of her graceful arms over the huge, pendulous breasts such an expression of serene pride; in the dimpled rolls of fat over her belly and hips, in the enormous buttocks and thighs such solid purpose; in the overall pregnant broodingness such self-sufficiency.

…These women were goddesses; and for a period five times as long as recorded history—far longer than any other deities—they alone were worshipped.

Wolfgang Lederer, “The Fat Venus,” The Fear of Woman(1)

But this is a modern kind of beauty, half child and half woman; that’s what they like nowadays.—pink for Ascla, Brigitte, Katherine, Rinuao, Sandra, and Sarah, and a sort of muted whiteness for Eva and Maya—Barnett Suskind’s female nudes might be regarded as objects of perverse desire by way of their hugeness. They have a certain oblique affinity with Picasso’s Roman women—also oversized, but, unlike Suskind’s grand odalisques, far from passive and somewhat more muscular (Suskind’s seem to be asleep, and all are tranquilly at rest, imperturbably at ease with their plush bodies, unlike Picasso’s peculiarly anguished running women)—but are much more self-contained. Their closed eyes suggest they have an inner life, while Picasso’s big women are wide-eyed and peculiarly empty. They may be big and heroic, but they don’t have the hermetic fullness of being—consummate presence–of Suskind’s nudes. To call them the objects of the voyeuristic male gaze is to miss their point: they don’t need male desire to perfect them.

Surveying the centuries old history of female nude imagery, one realizes that the only precedent for them is the prehistoric fertility goddess, most famously the Venus of Willendorf, dated about 30,000 B.C. She has many sisters

—another, recently unearthed, is regarded as the oldest work of art, and, being thumb-sized, perhaps the smallest of the goddesses (the cuts from its carvings adorn it, suggesting that it is a work in process, and inwardly alive however inert and bulky)—all of whom are faceless, as though their fertile body is their only raison d’etre. They are a long emotional way from the svelte, statuesque Venuses of classical antiquity, however also majestic and statuesque—in their own primordial way. The prehistoric Venus may seem ugly and misshapen in comparison to the classical Venus—the facelessness of the former, suggesting that she has no individuality (she’s no particular woman) is no match for the beautiful, individualized faces of the latter—but they’re both sacred. They express a different kind of sacredness: in the case of the prehistoric Venus, the sacredness of the earth; in the case of the classical Venus, the sacredness of the sky. The prehistoric Venus is a sacred piece of earth, the classical Venus is a sacred piece of heaven brought down to earth. The classical Venus is desire perfected, “classicized,” refined—eros idealized into absolute beauty, desire given a transcendental pedigree—

while the prehistoric Venus looks like a lump of lava that has erupted from the earth and hardened into a strangely human shape. She is clearly “deeper” than the classical Venus, while the classical Venus is clearly “higher” than her.

No polished marble for the primordial muse

—as distinct from the transcendental muse, embodied in glorified stone–but roughhewn stone, with no pretension of refinement: no idealized flesh but raw body. The prehistoric Venus has not been slenderized by idealization, which is why she seems to overflow with life—seems instinctively alive. She is much more vital than the sublime, detached, civilized Venus of classical antiquity. And more expressively inviting and emotionally comforting: one can imagine oneself entering her body—as Lederer points out, her conspicuous cleft seems to welcome one—and being comforted and encompassed by it as though in a warm and nourishing womb. There one can find the serenity that does not exist in the world. The classical Venus also promises serenity, but she is contemplated from afar—no immersion experience with her body is possible—and remains untouchably distant on the heavenly heights that the temple symbolizes. If there is any temple in which the prehistoric Venus was worshipped, it is the cave. As Lederer says, “They were of the earth—they were the earth itself, and they were adored in caves or crevices in the earth, or else in man-made caves: dark temples piled up of gigantic slabs of stone as of the very bones of Earth.”(3) The fat Venuses of prehistory are in fact straight from the earth: they symbolize the fatness of the land—the abundance that sustains life—the goodness of the earth that spontaneously generates the fruit of life.

Suskind’s big Venus is confined by the frame of his picture—virtually fills it–as though in a private cave. But his fat Venuses are modern not prehistoric: he has updated her appearance without denying her primordiality. He has given her an attractive face, and with that an inner life and individuality; smoothed her curves into voluptuousness, giving them a certain if unclassical beauty; and eroticized her, even suggesting that she is sexually active. Brigitte seems to be masturbating, and the other women seem sexually sated. Their breasts are not as pendulous as those of the prehistoric Venus, but their vaginas as emphatically displaced. Maya’s hands form a ring around hers, as though calling special attention to it, and announcing its sacredness, for the ring is a kind of aura. Suskind’s big Venus remains primordial, but she has become a sort of flirt, in whatever muted way. Her body is as audaciously present as that of the prehistoric fat Venus, but it is more sexually inviting, or at least more conspicuously erotic.

But for me what makes Suskind’s big Venus socially and humanly important is that her abundant beauty is a critique of the sterile beauty of modern woman—half child and half woman, as Moravia says, and thus immature and unable to be a mother. A genuine womanly mother has what the psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion calls the capacity for reverie.(4) Suskind’s women are eroticized mothers—mothers because they are a state of reverie, erotic because they convey sexual desire. The fusion of reverie and desire in them makes them complete women—in contrast to the ambiguous modern woman, who, as Moravia says, has the full breasts of woman, creating the illusion that she has the capacity to nourish a baby with her reverie, but the boyish body of an immature girl, a body incapable of carrying and bearing a baby however sexually active. One might say that Suskind idealizes the mother’s capacity for reverie while suggesting rapturous sexuality. The standing open-eyed nudes in two drawings—“come hither,” one suggests with her fingers, while the other seems to be doing a vigorous jig—convey Dionysian woman, while the reflective open-eyed sitting nude in another drawing (on canvas) suggests her potential for reverie, and with that motherhood. But the ampleness of Suskind’s Venus goes against the grain of the modern Venus—Manet’s sluttish, uncaringOlympia, 1863 is exemplary (her ancestor, Titian’s beautiful Venus of Urbino, 1503, is half-modern, half-traditional, for her body has the harmonious proportions of the classical Venus and her closed eyes convey inwardness and reverie, the idealized consciousness of the mother)—which is why she is more emotionally engaging, at least for mature men who remain in touch with the primordial mother of us all.

 

Notes

(1)Wolfgang Lederer, The Fear of Women (New York and London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1968), 8, 10

(2)Alberto Moravia, Boredom [1954],(New York: New York Review Books, 1999), 258

(3)Lederer, 10

(4)According to Bion, the mother’s reverie contains the infant’s “raw, concretely felt experiences”—he calls them beta elements–which would otherwise have to be expelled, and thus not processed and stored in “memory, understanding, symbolization,” that is, changed into alpha elements, thus leading to “further development.” The so-called container-breast of the mother allows the infant to “bear anxiety sufficiently not to eject the beta elements as an immediate discharge of discomfort.” Hanna Segal, Dream, Phantasy and Art (London and New York: Tavistock and Routledge, 1991) 51. ’s big Venuses is how self-contained, unanxious, and comfortable with themselves they seem, and how full, ripe, and warm their breasts are. It is this that makes them provocative in our modern “age of anxiety,” all the more so because they are more feminine than the modern woman, her half girlish, half womanly body—a body at odds with itself—conveys her anxiety and uncertainty about her femininity, and with that her insecure identity. Suskind’s big Venuses are unequivocally feminine and know exactly who they are, for they are one with themselves and their bodies.

What is striking about Suskind

Alberto Moravia, Boredom(2)

Touchingly painted, as though caressing their delicious flesh.