Tuesday, 8 September 2015

It's not over till the fat lady's carved

Last week I was lucky enough to meet this tiny yet voluptuous lady, who is 25,000 years old. At the time she was carved, Europe was deep in the Ice Age, and mammoths still walked the tundra.

What you can't see from the photograph is that she really is beautiful, lovingly and stunningly carved. There are other statues, of similar age, and similar type, in existence, but this one is jaw-droppingly good. Every roll of flesh is sinuously and sensuously curved, full of comfort in power. If you put it in a room of 20th century sculpture, it would still stand out as a piece of genius amongst the other, lesser works.

The Venus of Willendorf is held in the Natural History Museum in Vienna, rather than in the art museum, which I found odd. The two museums are opposite each other. In between is a statue of Empress Maria Theresa, the Hapsburg Empress who ruled over Austria, and about half of Europe besides, from 1740 to 1780. In the Art Museum opposite, you can see all the artistic and cultural glories the Hapsburgs collected, from paintings by Rubens to clocks and jewelled automata.

Maria Theresa rebuilt the massive Schoenbrunn Palace in Vienna, the seat of Hapsburg power. It is an enormous construction, oozing power and luxury, a monument to the height of European civilisation before modernity, in the shape of the industrial revolution, and often violent movements towards democracy, tore it apart. Opulent, overwhelming, over-decorated, as complacent as it is brilliant, the palace in the end witnessed the last death throes of the world it ruled.

The Venus of Willendorf is tiny, and the Palace of Schoenbrunn is huge, yet they have more than one thing in common. The Venus has been described as a fertility goddess, but I couldn't help wondering why it should be an image of anyone more imaginary than the flesh and and blood empress. Maria Theresa had 16 children, and farmed them out in marriage to the royal families of Europe, to secure her empire's power. The most famous of them, Marie Antoinette, lost her head in the French Revolution.

I wonder if, were we to lose the records of 18th-century Europe, and in a few millennia dig up the statue of Maria-Theresa, whether we wouldn't call her a fertility goddess too. What if, like Maria-Theresa, the Venus too held very real political sway above the fertile Danube Valley?

But that is not the only thing they have in common. In each monument, there is a glimpse of something at its height and its apogee, a moment of brilliance and of confidence. Both have taken time, and a great deal of thought, and talent, to arrive at that place. They are not the product of humans searching perilously for food or safety or shelter. They are a statement of presence: here I am. Here we are, not preoccupied with the necessities of survival, but instead, proving that we have conquered all that. We are rich enough to get damn fat.

Maria Theresa presided over a court that fed on all the inventions of the enlightenment: ideas, culture and music, and a Europe that was about to gather itself into the convulsions of industry, and of violent demands for equality. It would never look back. The carver of the Venus of Willendorf, whether they knew it or not, lived in a time in which humanity gathered itself to move out of nomadism, and towards the thing we call civilisation. In each of these objects there is a spark, as if a point of light illuminates the next turn in the maze.

Of course, both these civilisations are gone. Nobody knows who the Willendorf Venus was, if she was anyone at all, if her many children gave her sway over the neighbouring tribes of Europe, if she prospered in peace, or in war. In 1914, Maria-Theresa's great grandson Franz Josef, the last, elderly Emperor of Austria - bereaved of his wife and children, and living more or less or in one convenient room of the mile-wide palace - finally signed the declaration that brought about World War One.

Vienna is now a charming backwater, full of memories and beautiful buildings. It did not slide gracefully into decline. Much the brilliance, intellectual, cultural, and artistic, that had outlived the Empire was murdered, destroyed and thrown into exile by the horrors of Nazism.

Looking at the evidence of these horrors, it easy to wonder if a plunge into darkness must follow the spark, as inevitably as night follows day. Despite this, I can't help feeling that at each little spark, we move forward, somehow.

I am fairly sure these sparks happen regularly, in the long haul of history, but never in the same place, or quite the same way. I wonder if anyone really knows, or notices, at the time, what they're witnessing. Do they feel changed? Did the person who carved that lady out of rock look at their finished work, and think 'we will never go back from here?' Or did they just get on with the next thing in hand, and wonder what might be for dinner?

As for myself, whether I live in a spark, or a horrible slide into the abyss, I have absolutely no idea.

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