Graceless Graces

Rubens, 1639. Prado Museum, Madrid. 

Rubens, 1639. Prado Museum, Madrid. 

There are some painterly styles that I have never taken a shine to, and the nudes of Peter Paul Rubens are Exhibit A. I am not terribly fond of Michelangelo's, either, outside of his exquisitely gorgeous sculptures -- and even then, they can be problematic -- 'Night', the female figure in his Julius tomb project, looks like a beautiful male with lumpy breasts clumped on haphazardly over his masculine chest.

But the real effrontery comes not from the lack of a homosexual appreciation of the female form (which, given Michelangelo's staggering mastery of art, is surely the only reasonable explanation for that specific failure), but rather from the work of someone you would expect not only to know better but to sense differently, as well. We are told that Rubens's second wife, a 16-year-old at the time of the wedding, inspired many of his paintings, including The Three Graces, which in his hands is a celebration of cellulite and a study in bodyfat and emergent double chins. The women aren't just fleshy, they're knobbly and bobbly and out of proportion -- his Graces are an abomination of incoherent flab and unintelligible body bulges -- and they have small breasts, so unlikely on fatted-up women! Did the man never lay eyes on a taut smooth-fleshed woman with curves in the right places and feminine muscle? Apparently not. Whatever other attributes this painting has, I can never focus on them because of the repugnance I feel for all the misshapen lard.

One side... with two like bottoms on the other. Roman copy of a Greek sculpture, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

One side... with two like bottoms on the other. Roman copy of a Greek sculpture, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

That said, the gamine and rather characterless Graces painting that was once owned by Adolf Hitler is a step in the other direction: apart from the difficulty of assessing any art created with Nazi sanction, the women look too much like approved specimens for breeding who are presenting themselves to their masters' gaze. One wonders what would happen should they ever put on a pound or two -- or ever want a livelier, less airless atmosphere.

Fortunately, there is a middle way of perfection between the taut and the dysmorphic, and that can be found in ancient sculptures, but also more recently in the work of 19th-century artists, who knew what a fine figure consists in and could represent them without sinister undertones. Indeed, Antonio Canova gave us Three Graces who are inspirations to each other, and might just as well be unaware of the viewer: it is a sisterhood and mutual admiration society, and we look on without their asking our applause or approval. I think this works as a visually more intricate spectacle, but it also says something about the nature of the graces or goddesses themselves, since their qualities begin from within even though they might also have outward expression. The sculpture gives tangible form to the truth that no single quality is complete in itself, but gains from embracing others as well. Canova gives us girls that are slender without being hard, shapely without being excessively voluptuous, and charmingly charmed by their own charms. And even better, they are all smooth, the convention for refusing to sculpt female pubic (or axillary) hair holding strong. Who cares if the bottoms are ever so slightly droopy?

Antonio Canova, 1816, Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg

Antonio Canova, 1816, Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg