Aphrodite has always been a troublemaker.  So it is not a complete surprise that this ancient goddess of love caused a stir right here in San Antonio in the year 2012. At issue was a two thousand year-old marble statuette that the San Antonio Museum of Art wanted to display in an advertisement for the exhibition Aphrodite and the Gods of Love.

She was turned down—not once, but three times—on the grounds that she was, in the words of one publication, a “naked person” who might offend readers and viewers.  We disagreed, but relented and replaced the image of her body with a tame image of her face, the famed Bartlett Head, and one of her son, Eros. Eros is equally, but in his case, “acceptably naked.”

Apparently, censors at the airport who oversee the content displayed on the videos at the baggage carousel thought the picture of this stone statue was too “naked” for the sensibilities of our visitors and residents. We were further surprised when two other publications rejected this advertisement on the same grounds of prurience.

SAMA’s accepted Aphrodite advertisement. Used with permission.
SAMA’s rejected Aphrodite advertisement. Used with permission.

We had chosen the “nude,” as art historians call her, for good reason.  First, as the cover image for the exhibition catalogue, she represents the compelling nature of the exhibition and the quality of the beautiful objects in it.  Second, Aphrodite was the very first nude.

In about 350 B.C., the Athenian sculptor Praxiteles made a statue of Aphrodite that for the first time in history was completely nude—no flowing robes.  That sculpture influenced art for centuries to come, including our own.  Third, the image is provocative, apt for Aphrodite, since in Greek mythology she was an exceptionally beautiful seductress, an adulteress, and the catalyst for the Trojan War.

Art, at its best, is provocative. It makes us think. And sometimes it makes us uncomfortable. As an art museum, we’re not doing our job if we exhibit only works of art that make people feel “comfortable.”  Learning about the different beliefs and ideals of other cultures, past and present, helps us better understand our own.  Examining the power of a goddess two thousand years ago might give us insight into the power of pop culture icons today.  Is Aphrodite more extreme than Lady Gaga?  Does the exhibition help us understand our own confusion over the daily barrage of sexually explicit imagery in our culture?  Is pop culture our own kind of mythology?  Do we transfer our fears, anxieties and hopes to the pop gods and goddesses of today? How are we different from the ancient Greeks?

Statuette of Eros wearing the lionskin of Herakles
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Henry Lillie Pierce Fund, 00.312

Aphrodite and the Gods of Love comes to us from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, by way of the Getty Villa in Malibu.  It’s a coup for SAMA to be able to share the exhibition with two of the most highly regarded museums in the country. Some of the works on view come from the ruins of Pompeii and the National Archaeological Museum in Naples, Italy (including a dramatic 7-foot tall marble statue).

Aphrodite Capua Statue
Statue of Aphrodite. Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei. Museo Archeologico di Napoli, 6017. Image © www.pedicinimages.com. Used with permission.

From a purely academic point of view, this exhibition has enriched San Antonio.  It explores several themes that are currently the subject of cutting-edge research among scholars studying the art and cultures of ancient Greece and Rome, including the role of women in these societies, the use of nudity as an artistic convention and ancient values related to sexual relationships.  Scholars from Harvard, Yale, the University of California, the University of Texas, Texas A&M and the University of Georgia have been, or will be, in town to study various pieces in the exhibition and to speak on subjects relating to Aphrodite.  Trinity University has responded by theming its annual Lennox lecture series “Love and Desire in Antiquity.”

Statuette of Aphrodite emerging from the sea
Statuette of Aphrodite emerging from the sea. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Frank B. Bemis Fund, 1986.20

In its opening weeks, thousands of people have come to visit the exhibition and discovered the complete story of Aphrodite—the goddess of love, yes—but also her origins in five-thousand-year-old fertility goddesses, her role in ancient Greek religion, and her power as patroness of brides, seafarers and civic leaders.  One of our goals as a museum is to make sure that the works of art on display are relevant to the lives of our visitors. The Greeks looked to the gods and myths to explain the vagaries, complexities, and passions of the human heart. We think an artistically and historically important museum exhibition provides the perfect context to ask questions, look for answers and create a dialogue about timeless themes of love, sex, beauty, political power and women’s roles. Here it is, in marble, terracotta and bronze.

Visitors have considered our open-ended questions:  “Love is…” and “Beauty is…” and posted their answers on the museum’s “wall of words.”  One thing is certain: most people have an opinion about love and beauty.  Representations of this ancient and beautiful goddess continue to elicit a range of responses including awe at her beauty, curiosity about her lingering power over mortal affairs of the heart and even a deep, some would say irrational, fear of this powerful goddess of love, especially in her nude state.

Naked or nude? Art, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.  In spite of what local “censors” may think of the “naked person” in our advertisement, we’re confident that more people are attracted to this enduring image of beauty than offended by it.

Katherine C. Luber, Ph.D., (who goes as Katie) is The Kelso Director of the San Antonio Museum of Art, and more importantly, a fifth-generation Texan. She received her M.A. from the University of Texas and her doctorate at Bryn Mawr College, both in the history of art. Before moving to San Antonio, she worked at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Her area of scholarly expertise is the Renaissance. A special interest in the spice routes between Europe and the Levant led her to seek an M.B.A. from Johns Hopkins University and start a business delivering fresh spices to consumers.

Katherine C. Luber

Katherine C. Luber

Katherine C. Luber, Ph.D., (who goes as Katie) is The Kelso Director of the San Antonio Museum of Art, and more importantly, a fifth-generation Texan. She received her M.A. from the University of Texas...