Material Girls is a tiny exhibit on display at the Minneapolis Institute of Art through April 16, 2017. The show presents three prehistoric figurines, all of them apparently female, with accompanying material intended to settle scores in the battle of the sexes. I studied the exhibit because I was curious how prehistoric art of this kind could be a "catalyst...to examine the implications of their historic and contemporary interpretation through a gendered lens." After all, no one really knows much about these objects and, so, their interpretation is a matter of pure speculation.
The three objects are respectively Cycladic, Japanese, and upper Paleolithic. It is not possible to draw any art-historical connections between the three figurines. All three are charismatic works of art, beautiful in their own right, and exceptionally interesting. The Cycladic figure is the largest, a white slab of polished limestone with schematic features representing female sexual characteristics. The object is almost completely abstract, icy-looking, and glacially enigmatic -- these kinds of objects are found in the Cyclades, Greek Islands and date to about 2500 BCE. Clearly designed to be seen in the blinding light of the Mediterranean, or, I suppose, somehow embodying that light, the figures have a cool modernist elegance -- they look like designs by Paul Klee. The oldest statuette in the show is an example of Magdalenian arte mobiliar or Gravettian object -- a sandstone shard about five inches in length chipped to depict a round head surmounting two heavy, pendulous breasts and an egg-shaped convex belly. The object is carved in high relief and when lit from above the pubic area of the figure, beneath the oval belly is cast into a delta of shadow. The figure is featureless and her thighs seem to come together below the knees to make a kind of mermaid-like appendage -- she has no eyes, hands or arms, and no feet. This chip of sandstone was carved about 20,000 years before Christ. The sandstone has a warm color -- it looks like a loaf of bread and, in some light, has a honeyed complexion. The object's shape and color and texture all are memorably consistent -- this figure is a part of the earth and partakes of the earth's forms and colors: one imagines it would be cold to the touch at first, but, then, would warm in your fist. The third object in the show is the strangest, a Japanese Doju figure, probably made about 2000 years BCE. This object is ungainly, a hollow ceramic doll covered with a whorl of spiraling abstract designs, possibly representing some kind of fabric or tattooed flesh. The creature has short stubby arms and tiny flap-like legs. The figure's head consists of two vast insectoid eyes, greatly disproportionate in size, reposing in the creature's skull like two coffee beans each set on their side -- the immediate impression is that the female figure has the eyes of a large predatory insect, a mantis of some kind or the glittering compound eye of a dragonfly. The little ceramic is pot-bellied and possibly pregnant with small spike-like breasts, each equipped with clearly delineated nipples. Dojus come in four varieties and were apparently made for a period of four or five-thousand years -- about 15000 of them have been found throughout the Japanese islands. The kind of Doju displayed in the show is considered to be some kind of "watcher" or "sentinel" -- hence, the huge staring eyes. It is a generic figure, similar to hundreds of others of its kind. These objects had some kind of ritual use and were apparently "deactivated" when discarded -- they generally show signs that someone has defaced them intentionally, broken off a foot or an arm, to show that the object should no longer be used and is now kaput.
All three of these objects are simply labeled "female figure". The purpose of the show is simple, clear, and questionable. For various reasons, the women curating this show object to the appellation "Venus" when applied to this kind of art. The sole political purpose for the show, it's "gendered lens", is to insist that the term "Venus" should not be used to describe objects of such remote and differing provenance. In general terms, it is possible I think to agree with this contention, while being, nonetheless, critical of the vulgar and argumentative way in which the show's thesis is advanced. I quote the principal text:
Scholars -- all or mostly men -- simply assumed that these figures, with their exaggerated breasts and genitalia, were depicted naked for prehistoric titillation like "pinup girls" or as symbols of fertililty. The name was also a kind of mean joke since the sagging breasts and swollen thighs of these obese figures didn't actually conform to the slender, small-waisted and idealized Venus figures of the classical Greek or Roman world.
The curators go on to suggest that the figurines were intended as "companions in the afterlife" or "dolls" or were "deceased ancestors" or, possibly, coming round full-circle to what they seem to be condemning, representations of a "great Earth Mother goddess figure."
There is much to unpack in the censorious paragraph cited above. First, I am not sure that "all or most" current scholars studying these sorts of figurines are men. The most controversial theory recently developed about the upper Paleolithic figures is the product of Leroy McDermott and Catherine McCoid (see their article "Self Representation in the Upper Paleolithic," published in 1996 in which they are argue that the Venus figures are self-portraits made by pregnant women peering down at their gravid bodies.) A You-Tube video about the so-called Venus of Hohenfels bears the title "Prehistoric Pinup" but no one featured as a commentator on the six-minute film uses that term -- the two scholars called-upon to interpret the figure are a woman and a man who seem to get about equal screen time. "Prehistoric Pinup" was produced by Nature films -- I'm not sure who deserves the credit (or blame) for the title, but it is surely not the archaeologists who appear in the film. The author (or authors) of the comment above, apparently Kaywin Feldman, Mia's Nivin and Duncan MacMillan say that the breasts and genitalia of "these obese figures" are exaggerated. This is a questionable remark and suggests that, perhaps, our presenters have not seen many of the women that live around the area where I practice law. In all candor, I think that the rather heavy-set and voluptuous figures in the prehistoric objects look quite familiar -- they are certainly no less exaggerated and considerably truer to life, in my view, than, for instance, a standard-issue Barbie Doll. The comment about "sagging breasts" and "swollen thighs" suggests a preference for a certain body-type that it seems that our curators do not share. Calling these figures "Venuses" is said to be a "kind of mean joke" -- what is the evidence for this assertion? Is their some reason that a multi-gravida woman claimed to be "obese" with "sagging breasts" and "swollen thighs" can not be a Venus or Aphrodite figure? If so, what exactly is that reason? The nomenclature invoking Venus dates to 1864, the year that the Frenchman Marquis de Vibraye termed one of these figures La Venus Impudique ("immodest Venus") -- a reference to Venus pudique, a Greco-Roman nude who modestly shields her genitals from view. (Needless to say, the ancient Magdalenian figure didn't show such modesty and didn't really have hands with which to decorously cover her crotch.) Vibraye probably thought he was being clever, but I don't detect any aspect of "a mean joke" in his appellation. The "mean joke" seems to be in the eyes of the undoubtedly stylish, young, and slender women curating this small, lapidary exhibition. (There may be an element of anthropological condescension in the Venus terminology. Many of the Paleolithic figurines are girdled with fat around their upper buttocks (and not flabby below) -- this distribution of fat is characteristic of certain African desert dwellers, particularly the steatopygean Khoisan of the Kalahari. One such woman was exhibited throughout Europe and the United States in the era after the American Civil War as the "Hottentot Venus" -- a name that may well have had some derisive connotations. Whether Vibraye had this in mind when he coined the name for his find, La Venus Impudique, is unknown and, indeed, probably unknowable.) In any event, the tendentious aspect of this show, it's so-called "gendered lens", is the proposition that art historians, museum curators, and, ultimately, the museum-going public should stop calling naked female figures dating to the Aurignacian and Magdalenian periods of the Upper Paleolithic by the name "Venus". This may not be an unreasonable recommendation but it is one that will necessarily fail. Substituting the bland term "Female Figure" for The Venus of Willendorf, for instance, is not likely whatever the dictates of political correctness. And, indeed, when the exuberantly sexual goddess (I don't know what else to call her) carved from a mammoth bone was extracted from the cave at Hohenfels in 2006, the figure was immediately dubbed The Venus of Hohenfels.
(The subliterate advert for this show in the colorful MIA brochure tells me that the exhibit was "Conceived of by Kaywin Feldman, Mia's Nivin and Duncan MacMillan Director and President (sic)..." I now understand the Minneapolis Institute of Art burdens the name of its director Kaywin Feldman with a title "Nivin and Duncan MacMillan Director and President. This grotesque appellation led me to believe that there was someone called Mia's Nivin working with Kaywin to put this show together under the supervision of Duncan MacMillan. The error is mine, but, not, I would submit entirely my fault... And why would you write "Conceived of by..." particularly in the context of a show about fertility goddesses -- is this another "mean joke"?)