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Nude woman (Venus of Willendorf)

Nude Woman (Venus of Willendorf), c. 28,000-25,000 B.C.E., Limestone, 4 1/4" high (Naturhistorisches Museum, Vienna). Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING] DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: People love definitive answers. We really want to have a clear understanding of everything we see, art historians especially so. But people also love to make things. We love to make art. And one of the oldest works of art in the world yet found, is a small female figurine that's sometimes simply called Female Nude, but is still universally known as the Venus of Willendorf, a name that makes no sense whatsoever, but really speaks to the lens that our culture looks through. DR. BETH HARRIS: She acquired the name Venus when she was found in 1908, in a village in Austria, called Willendorf. She's only about 11 centimeters high, and she dates from about 25,000 years ago. So she's really old. And, in the museum in Vienna where we we're looking at her, in the Natural History Museum, they've shrouded her in darkness, in a glass case, illuminated from above. The outside looks like a great temple, and on it, it says "Venus of Willendorf." DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: And in fact, in the temple, there's a little button because, remember, this is a science museum. Lots of kids, and kids love to push buttons, and when they do, the white light on the figurine turns red, and a little flute music starts. Now of course we have no idea if these people listened to music, what that music would've been. It's really an attempt to fill in all the gaps. We know almost nothing about her. We don't know why she was made, who made her. What we have is the figure, and virtually no context. It is in some ways an anthropological object, rather than an art object. DR. BETH HARRIS: By giving her the name of an ancient Greek goddess, the goddess of love Venus, we were assigning meaning to her. A meaning of her being a goddess figure, and somehow associated with fertility. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Now, we have no reason to believe any of that is true. I suppose we do have a little bit more context, and that is, this is only one of quite a number of female figures that have been found from this era. This is during the last ice age, and it's some of the first figural sculpture that we've seen. What's interesting is that almost all the sculptures that have been found have been female figures. DR. BETH HARRIS: We should say all the figures that have been found so far are female figures, and they're nude. But they're of different shapes. Some exaggerate the breasts and buttocks. But others are thin. But maybe in 10 years, or 100 years, art historians and archaeologists will find male figures. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: So, all of this is guesswork. All we've got to look at is the figure itself. Let's take a close look. DR. BETH HARRIS: She has no feet, and very thin arms, which she rests high up on her breasts. And she has no facial features. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: That's consistent with almost all the figures from this period that have been found. There is a careful rendering of the hair, or perhaps a woven hat that's on her head. Some archaeologists have suggested that this might be a reed hat that she wears. DR. BETH HARRIS: Oh. There's the music and the red light. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: That's right, a small girl has just pushed the button. The hands are articulated ever so slightly, defining the fingers. And archaeologists who have looked at this carefully have suggested that perhaps the exaggeration of the stomach, and of the breasts, and of the head-- those are bulbous shapes throughout-- are partially a result of natural shape of the stone. This is a limestone object. She's symmetrical, and it's clearly not something that was meant to stand up. As you mentioned, there were no feet. But this is a figure that would easily fill a hand, and you have the sense that this is something that was meant to be held. DR. BETH HARRIS: Carried in a pocket, perhaps. Something like that. She does fit comfortably in a hand. We know that she was originally painted with ochre paint, a kind of red paint. Beyond that, it's really hard to say much more. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: So, we'll continue to be fascinated by it. Art historians will continue to try to find answers. And in some ways, I'm sure we'll always fall into the trap of reflecting our own interests, and our own needs, as we try to understand this object. I'm not sure that we'll ever fully understand it or be able to retrieve its original meanings. DR. BETH HARRIS: Nope. [MUSIC PLAYING]