Fragments

A few years ago, the artist Stephen Cox came to the Sainsbury Centre to give a lecture about his work, and among other things, he mentioned how he had been influenced by the fragility, beauty and sense of memory inherent in certain archaeological fragments. It was probably a chance connection, but it started me thinking afterwards about how many fragmentary objects there are in the Sainsbury Collection and how they might relate to a prevailing taste in the art of the 20th century. A bit later on I gave a gallery talk about it and realised that in each case the fragmentary nature of the object gives it an added resonance which is quite independent of its original purpose or meaning. This may be different in each case and can range between issues about its current impact to speculations arising from its original context and associated history. Some fragmentary objects have a poignance because of their disruption from their context: their fragility speaks of loss. Others are somehow essentialised, with additional power concentrated in them because of their fragmentary state.

However, the object that has for me been most persistently striking in this context is the Khmer torso. It is a fragment of a perfect quiet body - with the power of stillness which gives it tremendous presence. Despite the loss of all its extremities, it is undeniably beautiful and has always been regarded among collectors and cognoscenti as a great prize. It is erotic, but it is almost austere, concentrating some of the essence of feminine attractions, but not distastefully or too overtly. There is something both alluring and puritan about it.

But it also raises so many issues. For example: about the extent to which art has intrinsic or inherent meaning, and to what extent this is created by the artist? What part in subsequent interpretations of the object is played by the culture within which the artist is working, or may be determined by the purpose for which the object was created? To what extent, and how deeply, does meaning shift according to later histories and different responses by different viewers? Alternatively, how is a consensus such as I have described, about the desirability and impact of an object, arrived at in certain times and in specific cultural contexts? Why, for example, do we at the moment, in the context of Western museum culture, regard this object as beautiful? At another level, it is a partial thing, damaged, broken. So, another question is - why do we admire damaged goods? Why is there such perfection in imperfection?

We know that in its original context the torso came from a Buddhist temple in Cambodia. It dates from the 11th century. It was made in the so called Baphuon style. When entire, the figure represented a female deity, very likely to be the goddess Lakshmi, the beautiful consort of Vishnu. But complete figures have a very different kind of impact from our fragment. The detail of facial features and pose returns them to their specific role, representing religious figures, still alluring as was proper for their context, but sobre, quiet, serious. (Click here to see a Baphuon style bronze of a female deity, also from the 11th century.) For the Sainsbury figure, becoming a fragment has changed her meaning. It has removed specifically racial or contextual features and universalised her in Western terms. Furthermore, her fragmentary qualities have given her an additional poignance and fragility, and heightened eroticism.

But, in the knowledge that this figure is obviously disrupted from its background, why do we not read the figure as one to which cultural violence has been done? This may be explained to some extent by analogy with the obvious prototype for damaged female beauty, also a figure which has suffered cultural abuse: the Aphrodite of Melos, or Venus de Milo. Restoration of the full details of her pose became a contentious issue ever since her discovery in 1820, but it was decided ultimately that she was more beautiful in her damaged state, and it was thus she has been displayed at the Louvre since the middle of the nineteenth century. In Peter Fuller's essay of 1979, in 'Art and Psychoanalysis' 'The Venus de Milo and "internal objects"' [1], he argues that the acceptance of the eroticism of the damaged state of the object represented a positive shift in aesthetic preference. The title of the essay refers to psychologist Melanie Klein's theory (based on infant behaviour at the mother's breast) of simultaneous attraction and rejection. Rather than reconstruction of a past ideal (ie imagining the body in historically accurate complete state), it was the idea of dissolution (undoing) that gave it more of an erotic charge. Fuller's identification of the attraction/ repulsion of the fragment, the simultaneous revelling in the part and the whole, and the whole idea of the fractured and incomplete, as a modernist phenomenon, is an important contribution to the acceptance of the beauty of a partial and damaged thing in modernist Western high culture.

Feminist readings have emphasised the more insidiously psychological role of the eroticised nude Venus. From various Classical models has derived an authority for the establishment of canonical female naked beauty, which transcends specific cultural or historical attitudes in being continually reinforced and renewed in succeeding periods. In considering the repeated occurrence of the type of Venus deriving from Praxiteles 'Knidian Aphrodite', known as the 'Pudica' (which is not so much fragmented, as semi-concealing her pudenda), Nanette Salomon points to its continual reinforcement of quintessential elements of heterosexual desire [2]. In an essay published in 2000: 'Introducing Venus' by Caroline Arscott and Katie Scott [3], 'Venus came to stand for an eroticised beauty that was bound up with violence. Â…Venus is invoked as a powerful entity, is associated with an unbridled erotic force that places her beauty in a different category from the everyday objects of desireÂ…Â…'

Indeed the tensions between power and subjection, erotic force and modesty, are a continual feature of images of Venus and have both a very long ancestry and serve as a repertoire of attributes which can be re-appropriated for different purposes. We can never know for certain what lies at the origin of the 'unbridled erotic force' of the figure of the 'Venus of Willendorf', in the Natural history Museum in Vienna, Austria, dating from 30,000BC. But it is accepted as being inescapably self-evident. Here it serves in a modern context as a cover illustration for Amaury de Riencourt's 'Woman and Power in History' [4]. This is a figure which was clearly made to sit comfortably in the palm of the hand, and, depending on the gender of the holder, operating there as a kind of talisman. John Onians has written about such figures in an Art History article, 'The Origins of Art' [5], as being portable reminders of what is not there, sort of mnemonic comfort objects, bringing with them a kind of power of evocation (as well as a call to order). The Willendorf Venus has her hands clamped firmly to her side, but there is also a very early tradition of Venus figures without arms, in these cases intentionally essentialising the erotic parts of the body. The 'damaged', or perhaps one should say essentialised Venus is by no means a modernist phenomenon. (Click here to see the Venus of Dolni Vestonice, an example of an essentialised venus figure from Eastern Europe, dated to 25,000 BCE.)

I suggest that this long tradition in European art establishes the aesthetic foundations for reading the Khmer torso as a quasi Venus, but there a further aspect to be dealt with, or a further potential question, which maybe especially topical now. While the idea of aestheticised violence may be inherent in certain readings of the Venus, why does this not apply literally to the way we perceive this figure? Especially in the light of increasing publicity given to sado-masochism and body distortions in art, and in the media to violence against women, why do we not understand this figure as one to which violence has been done? Why does it not signify physical abuse?

There is a very fine line - which artists have understood very well - between an eroticised truncated body and a fetishised one. Consider, for example, the fetishised, almost violent images of Hans Bellmer, such as 'Doll' 1936; or latterly, especially the work of Jake and Dinos Chapman. Why, does this truncated body not raise these spectres?

Somehow it doesn't because, perhaps, because her lifelike-ness remains an obvious fiction. She remains a thing, and a historical stone-bound solid material thing, not a person. The tranquillity and stillness resonant from her earlier existence as a religious image, is one of the reasons why we do not empathise with negative aspects of her condition, but reconcile the damage and rehabilitate the object as a representation of selective detail, not a destroyed entity. But also, because of her shapely feminine curves, the Khmer torso has inserted herself into another tradition and has become a Venus: a canonical torso-Venus with the accumulation of universalised connotations discussed above, according to which we are attuned to see the positive rather than the negative.

So, I contend that our response, as habitués of Western museum culture, to the damaged body of the Khmer torso is informed (maybe not consciously) by the Venus tradition, by modernist readings of the fragmented body, erotic because of what has been removed, rather than because of what we seek to replace, and perhaps (ideally) also by the complexities of her role as victim and siren which have been highlighted in feminist interpretations.

The attraction and power of the Khmer torso comes, I think, from a whole complex of historical and cultural messages and our simultaneous understanding of them. And like all great objects, it still moves us by its simplicity and directness.

* [1] Peter Fuller, 'The Venus and 'Internal Objects', Art and Psychoanalysis, (London, Writers and Readers Publishing Cooperative 1980), 71-129.
* [2] Nanette Salomon, 'The Venus Pudica: uncovering art history's 'hidden agendas' and pernicious pedigrees', Generations and Geographies in the Visual Arts, ed. Griselda Pollock, (London and New York, Routledge 1996), 69-87.
* [3] Caroline Arscott and Katie Scott, 'Introducing Venus' in Manifestations of Venus, Art and Sexuality, ed. Caroline Arscott and Katie Scott (Manchester University Press 2000), 1-23.
* [4] Amaury de Riencourt, Woman and Power in History, (Honeyglen Publishing, 1983)
* [5] Desmond Collins and John Onians, 'The Origins of Art', Art History, Volume 1, No. 1 March 1978, 1-25. Onians points to the emphasis in the Willendorf figure of belly, buttocks, thighs breasts and shoulders, relative to other parts of the body which are withered or ignored. These are parts which have important tactile interest during early phases of love-making.

Veronica Sekules | May 2003