The following works of art all depict the human body: Woman of Willendorf (Paleolithic, 28,000-25,000 BCE), Pharaoh Menkaure and Queen Khamerernebty (Egypt, 2490-2472 BCE), and the Dying warriors of both the east and west pediments of the Temple of Aphaia (Archaic into Classical Greece, 480 and 490 BCE, respectfully). The broad ideas these figures can be associated with, paired with their smaller level details, together demonstrate how cultural ideals regarding body image change and develop over time.
The Woman of Willendorf, sometimes called “Nude Woman,” is one of the oldest pieces of art found. She is eleven centimeters tall and made of limestone. We know very little about her and cannot make any grand conclusions (though we have “assigned” meaning to her to satisfy these holes). A few other figurines from the last Ice Age have been discovered, and they were of women as well, highlighting curvature and breasts. The Woman of Willendorf has been associated with fertility, given the name Venus, who is goddess of love and fertility. The figure does not have any facial detail. We do have, however, extremely exaggerated breasts and stomach, and the detail of the vulva. This could certainly lead us to the thought that fertility is indeed the symbol here. What does this indicate? Maybe robust women were more fertile and were the idealized size. Maybe a woman’s main purpose was fertility alone. Maybe larger women were considered healthy. We do not have much to go by, but this is where we can consider human sculpture history more or less to begin. The
Egyptian statue of Pharaoh Menkaure and Queen Khamerernebty provides us with a representation of a high-figure male and female during the Pyramid ages. Menkaure and his queen stand side by side, made in sandstone, emerging forward with both their left feet outward (most female figures would not do this, which indicates that Queen Khamerernebty could in fact be Menkaure’s Queen-Mother.) They look forward and their almost-stoic faces give a sense of “other world” – they are in motion, stepping into eternity, and we are watching them in all their beauty. Menkaure has a very detailed face which feels unique. He has smooth skin with no imperfections and a hardy structure: he is quite the image of youth. He wears a traditional pharaoh headpiece, the royal beard in place, and holds the ceremonial cloths – he is in normal pharaoh stature, and this artwork celebrates him.
His queen is constructed beautifully. She has a mature body with breasts shown through her clinging clothing, and again, a detailed, unique face. These figures are beautiful and we look at them in amazement, but they are not exactly idealized like typical royal artwork. They are individuals, set in these roles. We can compare this Egyptian art to artwork from earlier periods: we have developed ideals, styles in art based on the literal trends of Egyptian culture, and furthermore, different meanings and purposes of artwork: this sculpture would function as a piece to ensure rebirth for the king during afterlife.
The Dying Warriors of both the East and West Pediments of the Temple of Aphaia provide us with a look at the evolution of Greek sculpture in particular. In 490 BCE, the West Pediment figure was made. It is just one part of a lively Trojan War-scene pediment. We see this warrior fallen; he has been impaled in the chest. He is trying to remove the weapon from his chest though he will probably die, all the while sporting his archaic smile common to the art period (to enliven the work of art; not to portray a particular emotion). His legs are flailing in a sort of schematic, perfected way – it is like a pose. This artwork symbolizes a wounded warrior, but it does not do so realistically. It symbolizes a wounded warrior using limited expression and the current standards – both capabilities and ideals – regarding displaying the full body.
On the East Pediment, approximately ten years later BCE, we have a far more complex rendering of a hurting warrior. Not only is our body more realistic in its muscle and skin transitions, but we have bodily movement that is believable. The artist thought about what it was like to fall, and this work expresses that very concept. We also lose our archaic smile, as this marks the beginning of the Classical Period in Greece. The face looks a bit tired, and is downward as the soldier tries to hoist himself up with his shield – another object added to the imagery of the scene. We feel this defeat, and through the Hellenistic Period and beyond, emotional concepts which it seems are skimmed here, are explored much more in-depth.
We have looked at a limited number of representations of how cultural ideals around the body change over time. Developing cultures evolve to appreciate certain aspects of the human body, in specific ways and to represent defined values or messages. Some 30,000 years ago, what we now call the “Woman of Willendorf” depicted a human being, specifically a woman, and a robust one. Maybe this translates to an ideal, or to a symbolism or affiliation with fertility. Fast forward many cultures, and we have Egyptian pharaohs being portrayed. We see political hierarchy and religion, defined body ideals, and individualism having developed, all of which are being represented through art. Fast forward further, and we have established war politics displayed in art openly, fierce propaganda exploration and growing expressions of detail, liveliness, and eventually, concepts of emotion and imperfection.