March 26, 2011

Fertility Figures

"Fertility Figure"  Dan Woodard, Bronze

In creating my own fertility figure, I was strongly influenced by paleolithic fertility figures that date to some 38,000 years ago.  These voluptuous and sensual forms have greatly affected my characterizations of the female form.

"Venus of Willendorf"  4.3" high, Limestone



Fertility figures have fascinated me ever since I first became aware of the Venus of Willendorf while taking an anthropology class at UCLA.  This sculpture, approximately 23,000 years old, was discovered in 1908 in the village of Willendorf in lower Austria.  She is made of limestone and tinted with a red ochre.  With her large breasts, abdomen, and a detailed vulva, scholars immediately thought of her as a fertility symbol and named her after the Roman goddess of love, which she predates by several millennia.  For many years she was considered to be the oldest example of sculpture known to man.

"Venus of Dolni Vestonice"  4.4" high, Low-fired clay

However, since her discovery, many similar, and even older, fertility figures have been found.  These include the Venus of Dolni Vestonice, which at around 29,000 years old is the oldest known example of the use of ceramic, even predating functional pottery.  And, in 2008, one hundred years after the discovery of the Venus of Willendorf, the oldest yet known Venus figure was discovered in Germany.  The Venus of Hohle Fels is approximately 38,000 years old and dates to the earliest presence of Homo sapiens (Cro-Magnon) in Europe.  This sculpture is not only the oldest known example of sculpture, it is also the oldest work of any art form yet discovered (the oldest cave paintings date to “only” 32,000 years ago).  

"Venus of Hohle Fels"  2.4" high, Wooly Mammoth tusk

While the majority of scholars view these and similar figures as fertility symbols, others have presented alternating theories of their meaning or purpose.  Some argue that the diversity of the figures represent differing segments of the Paleolithic population.  Others see them as self-portraits created by the women they represent or effigies of a mother goddess cult.  Some even theorize that they are a form of portable pornography due to their small size.

I had been creating abstract sculptures for about two years when I tackled my first figurative piece.  Without having any conscious image in mind, I automatically began sculpting a woman that quickly evolved into my own fertility figure.  I hadn’t seen the Venus of Willendorf for many years, but the memory of her immediately came to me as I continued my sculpture.  I was impressed by the size and voluptuousness of my own figure, but when I again looked up the original, I realized how my form was much more reserved than that of my prehistoric ancestors.  My own natural inclination to this form makes me believe that the prehistoric fertility figure is an archetypal and subconscious image.  To me there seems to be both a numinous and a sensual quality that draws one to these figures. 

Upon completion of my own fertility figure, I made a mold of her and cast her in bronze.  The final statuette has a rich patina with sections carved out to emulate natural erosion.  My bronze fertility figure is somewhat of a personal joke, although no one yet has gotten it on their own.  The joke:  the bronze age began some 20,000 years after these types of fertility figures were created.

"Fertility Figure #2"  Dan Woodard, Alabaster

Other female sculptures I’ve created (see “Ariadne” and “Ester” on my web site) have been strongly influenced by my own and prehistoric fertility figures.  It seemed only natural that, when I made my first stone carving, I return to my fascination with fertility figures.  Actually, it was a good subject matter for a beginning stone carver since the form is both stylized and not intricately detailed.  All-in-all it feels good to continue a tradition that began nearly 40 millennia ago.

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