Copy of the 'Venus of Willendorf'

Venus of Willendorf

Materials: carved schist stone
Dimensions: 10 centimeters high
Place acquired: Watkins esoteric bookshop, London
Place of manufacture: Varanassi, India

I feel I must put “The Venus of Willendorf” in inverted comas, because the name itself is at the very heart of a modern narrative about this famous figurine that has everything to do with our own prejudices and nothing to do with what we can ever know of its original meaning.

The real figure is a famous piece of palaeolithic art now on display in the Naturhistorisches Museum in Vienna. This original is fashioned from limestone and is thought to be around 30,000 years old. It was found in 1908 at a site near Willendorf, a village in Austria. The ‘Venus’ bit, after the Roman goddess of love, quickly attached itself for no better reason than that the figure depicts a naked female form. But there is also a subtle ironic comparison intended that draws attention to the figure's presumed 'primitiveness'.

The speculation that typically surrounds the figure centres around various themes: sexuality; eroticism; pregnancy; fertility; obesity; deity; fecundity; matriarchy. In short, was she a goddess? a cult figure? a portrait? an cultural ideal? a good luck charm? a matriarch? an item of pornography?

By the standards of any era the artistry of this palaeolithic sculpture is superb (by comparison my copy is a clumsy imitation). It is also clear that it is a study from life rather than an abstract exaggerated form. The artist knew someone who looked like this. Despite its intriguing lack of a face, and its beautifully stylised arms, it displays a naturalistic understanding of the mature, fat female body. It is entirely convincing, and in the end this is all we can know about the figure, and perhaps all we need to know. The ironic ‘Venus’ tag, with its patronising overtones serves only to tell us about us.

My copy of the figure was fashioned from schist stone somewhere in India, probably around 2007. It was part of a regular order for ‘Venus of Willendorf’ figures placed by a New Age bookshop in London that also sells assorted Buddhas, crystals and amulets from around the world. The ‘Venus’ sells well through this shop. When I asked the bookseller why that might be he replied that he thought it was "a sort of Earth Mother thing". Maybe this tells us something of the catch-all appeal of this ancient, un-knowable object, and our tendency to project on to it whatever mystical meanings we wish.