A delicious nude. Certainly. Slightly confrontational, too, since she is very nude indeed. What is it doing here in this cloister? The word cloister comes from the Latin 'claustrum': 'enclosed space'. If women were seen there at all they were also closed off from the outside world, dressed in a habit from head to toe, their head covered with a hood. Nudity was never something that was valued here.
Weibliche Torso, 2005, Antje Otto, Plaster, H= 63 cm,
Private collection of the artist
Venus of Willendorf, Paleolithic period 24,000 BC, Anonymous,
Limestone h = 11 cm, Vienna, Natural History Museum
The oldest known female nude is the Venus of Willendorf. This small limestone sculpture is 11 centimetres in height and represents a woman with the sexual characteristics rendered in explicit detail: large breasts, large buttocks and a vagina. The sculpture probably served as a fertility symbol. It is dated between 20,000 and 25,000 BC. More of such sculptures have been found in Europe, made of bone and ivory.
A fertility symbol. Should we take this as a form of provocation, then? Let's take a closer look.
We can see a sculpted fragment of a human body. In this case, a female fragment. This is unusual, because most torsos, as these kinds of sculptures are called, are male. A torso is a part of the body, the trunk, and therefore a partial sculpture. (We know that loose arms and legs or other body parts were already being made very early on in history. These were reliquaries, and thus purely functional, and they were not considered artworks.)
Torsos are all inspired by that one famous discovery in Michelangelo's Renaissance: The Belvedere Torso.
Torso Belvedere approx. 150 BC, (Hercules (?), Apollonios, son of Nestor,
Rome, Vatican museum
It acquired its name from the Belvedere Court in which the statue was displayed, built by the Renaissance architect Bramante in the early 16th century and part of the papal palace in the Vatican.The marble sculpture is signed by Apollonios of Athens. Before the loss of its head, legs and arms, the statue was probably a wrestler, resting on a rock. The first reference to the sculpture was made in Rome in 1430, but people only truly started to appreciate it after 1500, when there was a renewal of interest in the human body, which had been neglected in Gothic styles of art. Michelangelo used the sculpture as a model for St. Bartholomew in the Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel. Bartholomew is seated on a rock with a knife in his hand and the image of Michelangelo's self-portrait on his flayed skin.
The Last Judgement 1534-41, Saint Bartholomew with self-portrait of Michelangelo,
Michelangelo Buonarotti, Fresco 1370 x 1200 cm, Rome, Sistine Chapel
If we compare the Venus of Willendorf to the Weibliche Torso of Antje Otto, we can see the most important difference: the Weibliche Torso lacks a head, arms and legs by design, while the Venus does have these parts, although they are totally subordinate to the whole. The flat little arms resting on the breasts are barely visible. Historically, this makes sense: no torsos were made in the time of the Venus of Willendorf, but in the period after Michelangelo they became quite common. Why?
Torso of Adèle 1880, Auguste Rodin, Terracotta h x w x d = 11 x 38 x 17 cm,
Paris, Musée Rodin
Pars pro toto: The part in place of the whole
What does the sculptor want to express with a torso? In the first place, a pars pro toto: a part of the body that evokes a mood or state of mind. The absence of the rest of the body only strengthens the perception created by the most evocative body part. Moreover, it is easier to suggest motion with a part than with a whole - just try imagining an arm attached to it; that would quickly dminish the dynamic quality of the whole. It also has to do with a fascination with the beauty of the human body. Michelangelo was the first to discover these qualities, when sculptures from Antiquity were unearthed in Rome.
Pars pro toto: The Part as a whole
Rodin, a great admirer of Michelangelo, further developed the theme of the partial body. In the 19th century, Rodin regarded the incomplete body as a whole, which quickly lead to the Torso becoming accepted as a complete sculpture, both by artists and the public.
Due to the absence of details such as fingers, feet or a head, the emphasis is on the whole. The perception shifts to the state of mind more quickly, because the sculpture lacks distracting details. We no longer pay attention to accuracy, but instead to what is evoked by the whole. Due to their direct relationship with our own bodies, you could also say torsos belong more to us than to history.
Back to Antje Otto
Each sculptor from our time who dares to create a torso is following in the tradition of the Venus of Willendorf, Michelangelo and Rodin. And if you make the torso 'Weiblich' (German for female) instead of 'Männlich' (male), you expand the repertoire to include the entire human race, the equality of men and women, of Adam and Eve. As an artist, Antje places herself specifically in the historical tradition of sculptural art through both her sculpture and its title – referencing her illustrious predecessors, aiming to equal them, but not imitate them.
Antje Otto Torso - bronze
If you search for meaning in the fine arts, for the 'why' of things and for the 'what are these things trying to express', a proven method is the comparison between two or more artworks; in this case, a comparison between Belvedere and Weibliche. Comparisons are made by careful observation, which involves listing the things you see! If you don't believe that, enter a ladies' fashion store and listen to how the ladies observe the merchandise together.
The Belvedere Torso is a fragment, a part left over from a complete sculpture, completely in motion, made of marble and not bronze, making it look more natural, with a surface that is sanded smooth and a monumental spatial effect.
The Weibliche Torso is a deliberate fragment that should be regarded as a fully developed whole, in a relaxed pose, made of plaster and bronze – which means it is moulded rather than cut – realistic in a modern way without any special symbolism. Its surface reveals the impressions of fingers and tools, and the sculpture's own plastic art and spatial effect is aimed inwards. Antje's sculpture is standing in a balanced pose, not sitting energetically like the Belvedere and not lying in a curved and ecstatic posture, like Adèle. The sculpture has now become a unit; not a fragment, but a conscious whole.
Since Rodin, the skin of sculptures has acquired a special significance: skin is energy. The skin catches the light and creates the illusion of motion. The smooth marble skin of the ancient sculptures has therefore been replaced by the impressions made by Antje's fingers and tools. The hard, polished suggestion of timelessness is replaced by the eternally changeable - the moment of observation is the most important. This moment, with this particular lighting, will soon change.
The skin tells us even more - in our regular lives, we draw conclusions about a person's health based on the colour and texture of their skin: does she look pale or faded, brown or yellow, is her skin loose and wrinkly, or does it appear tight due to the tension of the muscles beneath it? In other words, is the emphasis on the skin or the underlying flesh? This question crops us particularly in relation to the Torso, as it focuses our attention on what is there under the skin, both the muscles and the flesh.
Anatomical accuracy is no longer the most important matter - a sculpture is not an anatomical lesson, but an expression of a state of mind. The surface treatment by Antje is consistently gentle; unlike Rodin, she does not cut large chunks out of the back as if a claw had sliced through the body. Instead, she leaves impressions of moulding fingers and thumbs, impressions that merge into each other show evidence of the skin having been touched.
Since Rodin, the torso has focused on what is essential!
- Taking pleasure in the craft
- Concentrating on the surface
- Liberation from mythological and historical connotations
- Aesthetic gain
- Exposing the private physical sensation
- Showing vulnerability
- Sublimation of sexual feelings
The sublimation of sexual feelings, the carnal desire, is characteristic of every torso and every sculpture of a body, and becomes increasingly visible as history progresses. We have left the Victorian era behind us and attach more and more value to our physical sensations. That is why so many advertisements are related to body parts: slimming, depilating legs, odorants, etc. Sports focus on the body parts that are important for winning. The medical world advertises the fact that organs can be replaced, both internally and externally. Botox is popular. The human body, especially in all its parts, still occupies a dominant place in culture. The body is still just as idealised as the body of that Greek wrestler from centuries ago.
Antje's Weibliche is a respectful exploration of the true intimacy of the female body. The emphasis of her sculpture is on what the women who entered this place, to hide their beauty and distance themselves from their sexual and fertile potency, must have been aware of. That is genuine wonder and not a misplaced provocation.