Barbara Brickner: ''La naissance de Venus''
(Originally posted on The Judgment of Paris Forum, March 4th, 2004.)
Of the many ways in which full-figured fashion can benefit from the influence of Western art, the most rewarding results are achieved when photographers and models transpose renowned artistic masterpieces into a contemporary context. The images that are produced through such efforts confirm plus-size models as the true contemporary incarnations of the timeless ideal of feminine beauty.
To ascertain just how closely this picture follows Cabanel's masterpiece, consider the following description of La naissance de Venus, penned by the great art critic Philip Hamerton. We have positioned Hamerton's statement between these two images, to indicate how Hamerton's words describe the photograph of Barbara just as well as they do the Cabanel painting:
She lay in full light on a soft couch of clear sea-water that heaved under her with gleams of tender azure and pale emerald, wherein her long hair half mingled, as if it were a rippling stream of golden water losing itself in the azure deep. The form was wildly voluptuous, the uttermost extremities participating in a kind of rhythmical, musical motion. The soft, sleepy eyes just opened to the light were beaming with latent passion, and there was a half-childish, half-womanly waywardness in the playful tossing of the white arms. The whole figure was colored with a dazzling delicacy . . . (Painting in France, 1895).
To achieve Cabanel's effect, the photographer brilliantly positioned Barbara reposing on a "soft couch"--not of "clear sea-water," perhaps, but with a white covering that is reminiscent of the white surf in Cabanel's painting. The bed has contours, as does Cabanel's gently rolling sea, and it conforms itself to the model's figure, as do the waves. Barbara's tresses seem to lose themselves in the strands of the bedcovering, just as Venus's hair becomes "a rippling stream of golden water losing itself in the azure deep." The "tender azure" colour of the sea has cleverly been transferred to the model's apparel, to further reinforce the water motif. Barbara's pose closely echoes that of Venus, while stopping short of slavish imitation. Her one knee rests lightly against the other, and the "playful tossing" of her arms through her hair reproduces the effect of "waywardness" that Hamerton identified in Cabanel's Venus. The greatest triumph is the look that we see in Barbara's "soft, sleepy eyes just opened to the light . . . beaming with latent passion." Only a model are skilled as Barbara could have recreated such a particular look, and made it entirely convincing. And it goes without saying that the model's "wildly volputuous form" matches that of the Classical goddess.
Altogether, this is one of the most daring, most beautiful images of Barbara Brickner's career--as much the definitive lingerie photograph as her black-and-white Mode tearsheet remains the definitive swimwear image. In successfully bringing to life Cabanel's immortal depiction of Venus--perhaps the most compelling depiction of the Classical divinity ever created--Barbara proves, for once and for all, the legitimacy of equating plus-size models with goddesses.
This collaboration is a tour de force on the part of the model and the photographer. It is the realization of the highest aesthetic ideals of plus-size modelling, and is a legitimate contribution to the artistic pursuit of Beauty which has been the apogee of Western culture since the dawn of Antiquity--indeed, since "the birth of Venus" . . .
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