When we consider the impact that the Symbolists had on how the following generations of artists treated beauty, the best example may well be Arthur Rimbaud’s sonnet, Venus Anadyomene.
A contemporary of Degas and the Impressionists, Rimbaud, like painters, saw his Venus as a “real” woman, unravelling to us her terrifying beauty, complete with bad hair and cellulite. Rimbaud rampantly went against the custom image, showing the birth of Venus from behind. As Somerset Maugham would say in Cakes and Ale: or, the Skeleton in the Cupboard in 1930, it was unforgivable to write about women as if they had no anus at all – and Rimbaud in 1870 certainly held the same viewpoint.
So, as you proceed to reading Venus Anadyomene by Rimbaud in several languages, you may also compare various representations of the birth of Venus in painting, starting as early as a fresco in Pompeii. Rimbaud’s poem is also in sharp contrast with a melodic long poem by Rainer Maria Rilke that again studies Venus as it emerges from the water, facing us.
Arthur Rimbaud – Venus Anadyomene (1870)
Comme d’un cercueil vert en ferblanc, une tête
De femme à cheveux bruns fortement pommadés
D’une vieille baignoire émerge, lente et bête,
Avec des déficits assez mal ravaudés;
Puis le col gras et gris, les larges omoplates
Qui saillent ; le dos court qui rentre et qui ressort;
Puis les rondeurs des reins semblent prendre l’essor;
La graisse sous la peau paraît en feuilles plates;
L’échine est un peu rouge, et le tout sent un goût
Horrible étrangement ; on remarque surtout
Des singularités qu’il faut voir à la loupe…
Les reins portent deux mots gravés : Clara Venus;
– Et tout ce corps remue et tend sa large croupe
Belle hideusement d’un ulcère à l’anus.
German translation by Eric Boerner
Wie aus ‘nem Weißblechsarg erscheint ein Frauenkopf,
Die braunen Haare dick pomadisiert,
Aus alter Badewanne, träge, dumpf, es tropft,
Die Defizite sind nur mäßig renoviert.
Dann – feist und grau – der Hals, weit klaffen Schulterblätter,
Der kurze Rücken hebt sich, beugt sich wieder vor;
Dann schwingen Lendenwülste sich wie zum Flug empor;
Das Fett unter der Haut erscheint wie flachgeplättet;
Das Rückgrat ist leicht rot, vom Ganzen schwelt ein Duft
Befremdend fürchterlich; doch man bemerkt mit Lust
Die Einzelheiten dort, die nur die Lupe findet …
Und CLARA VENUS ist den Lenden eingraviert;
– Der ganze Leib bewegt sich, spannt den breiten Hintern
Und scheußlich schön erscheint am After ein Geschwür.
A fresco in Pompeii
Russian translation by Mikhail Kudinov
Из ржавой ванны, как из гроба жестяного,
Неторопливо появляется сперва
Вся напомаженная густо и ни слова
Не говорящая дурная голова.
И шея жирная за нею вслед, лопатки
Торчащие, затем короткая спина,
Ввысь устремившаяся бедер крутизна
И сало, чьи пласты образовали складки.
Чуть красноват хребет. Ужасную печать
На всем увидишь ты; начнешь и замечать
То, что под лупою лишь видеть можно ясно:
«Венера» выколото тушью на крестце…
Все тело движется, являя круп в конце,
Где язва ануса чудовищно прекрасна.
Brazilian Portuguese Translation by Ivo Barosso (source)
Qual de um verde caixão de zinco, uma cabeça
Morena de mulher, cabelos emplastados,
Surge de uma banheira antiga, vaga e avessa,
Com déficits que estão a custo retocados.
Brota após grossa e gorda a nuca, as omoplatas
Anchas; o dorso curto ora sobe ora desce;
Depois a redondez do lombo é que aparece;
A banha sob a carne espraia em placas chatas;
A espinha é um tanto rósea, e o todo tem um ar
Horrendo estranhamente; há, no mais, que notar
Pormenores que são de examinar-se à lupa…
Nas nádegas gravou dois nomes: Clara Vênus;
— E o corpo inteiro agita e estende a ampla garupa
Com a bela hediondez de uma úlcera no ânus.
English translation by Wallace Fowlie
As from a green zinc coffin, a woman’s
Head with brown hair heavily pomaded
Emerges slowly and stupidly from an old bathtub,
With bald patches rather badly hidden;
Then the fat gray neck, broad shoulder-blades
Sticking out; a short back which curves in and bulges;
Then the roundness of the buttocks seems to take off;
The fat under the skin appears in slabs:
The spine is a bit red; and the whole thing has a smell
Strangely horrible; you notice especially
Odd details you’d have to see with a magnifying glass…
The buttocks bear two engraved words: CLARA VENUS;
—And that whole body moves and extends its broad rump
The origins of this post date back to July 2008. I went to London and visited Victoria and Albert Museum. I spent most of my time there admiring sculptures by Rodin, Canova and Lord Leighton, and it was there that I came across the group by Antonio Corradini, Apollo Flaying Marsyas. The group dated back to 1719-1723 and was originally at the royal gardens in Dresden. It was not unusual to see such group in the place where the high and mighty would walk: in the Summer Garden in St. Petersburg one of the sculptures depicted Uranus devouring his child – hardly a pleasant composition to behold during a lazy afternoon promenade. Yet Corradini’s sculpture was disturbing in a very peculiar way. Apollo, armed with this huge garden knife, skins Marsyas’s leg, while watching a poor satyr with the most curious expression: the god is either surprised by the satyr’s reaction, or he is gently reminding Marsyas that such was supposed to be the punishment, so “no sulking now!” I was particularly impressed by the contrast of the scene’s brutality and by Apollo’s gentle musical fingers holding Marsyas’s leg as if it was a cello’s body.
When I looked around for representations of this story by other artists, my surprise grew even bigger to some extent. As you can see in the presentation below, artists were not unanimous on how to depict Marsyas. According to some variants of the legend, he was a satyr; in other cases he was a peasant. This may explain why in some paintings Marsyas appears as a man, and not as half-goat. Neither were they unanimous in showing Apollo’s involvement. Although the majority of painters or sculptors showed the god heavily involved in punishing the satyr, some, like Titian, gave Apollo a Nero-esque look, putting him almost in the background, giving him the lyre and making him the onlooker.
It may be tempting to reflect on the social undertone of the legend. The god of Sun whose power was challenged by a peasant takes to punish the offender most severely… and if the peasant was in fact a satyr, half-goat that is to say, so the “social” component of the story was even more prominent. As much as this social undertone cannot be denied (which may explain why Antonio Corradini’s sculpture had been gracing the royal gardens), what is probably more interesting is the opportunity the story of Apollo and Marsyas was giving to showcase the awareness of human anatomy, emotions, and the developments in medical science. Apollo in the paintings by Jordaens, de Ribera and Carpioni strikes the pose that would normally be seen in the anatomical theatre – that of an experienced surgeon and anatomist. Marsyas wriggling his body in agonising pain, his face distorted, was once again a great opportunity to put to work the knowledge gained in hospitals, battlefields, and prisons. And not once do we see the artist meticulously showing us the process of skinning the poor satyr. It was about bones, meat, and tissues rather than politics – let alone mythology.