As you may recall, I am taking part in the 2018 A-Z Challenge, and my theme is Letters to Dead Artists. Today, I am launching off with A: Alexandros of Antioch. Don’t despair if you’ve never heard of him. No doubt, you have heard of his famous sculpture, The Venus de Milo, which is conspicuously missing her arms. She can be found in the Louvre Museum in Paris. The song I have chosen to accompany the Venus de Milo is “She” performed by Elvis Costello:
She may be the beauty or the beast
May be the famine or the feast
May turn each day into a Heaven or a Hell
She may be the mirror of my dreams
A smile reflected in a stream
She may not be what she may seem
Inside her shell…
Little is known about Alexandros of Antioch. It appears that he was a wandering artist working on commission. According to inscriptions in Thespiae, near Mount Helicon, in Greece dating back to around 80 BCE, his father was Menides and he’d won contests for composing and singing. It is not known when he was born or died.
Yet, perhaps Venus de Milo still speaks for him… a mirror reflecting something of the man who created her.
While I finally had the opportunity to see the Venus de Milo while I was in Paris in 1992, I first heard about her in a poem by Rachel Bradley: Venus Without Arms. It was International Women’s Day 1989, in Sydney University’s Manning Bar and I was performing my poetry at the launch of Rachel’s poetry anthology: Dragonshadow. So, you could say I was a supporting artist. Venus Without Arms addresses the objectification and sexualisation of a woman’s body, and the resulting loss of power. The concluding stanza reads:
I can’t believe it was just
that broke only your arms
and rendered you a Work of Art.
This poem has stayed with me for the last 28 years, and has come back to me whenever I’ve felt disempowered and a modern day Venus without arms.
Much mystery surrounds the Venus de Milo. These mysteries extend way beyond what happened to her missing arms, and what they were doing before they disappeared. Indeed, there’s even been controversy and uncertainty over who sculpted Venus. Moreover, while she is known as “Venus”, her more correct Greek title would have been “Aphrodite”. However, when you consider that Venus was made between 130 and 100 BC and is at least 2, 117 years old, it’s hardly surprising that she has her secrets.
Indeed, we are lucky that Venus was even found. You see, she hasn’t always lived in splendour at The Louvre. Rather, she was discovered in 1820 on the Greek island of Milos, while local farmers were digging up stones to make their houses. A farmer called Theodoros Kentrotas tried to hide the statue in his stone house, but Turkish officials seized it. The French naval officer, Julius Dumont d’Urville realized its importance and purchased the statue. It was then taken to France, and offered to Louis the XVIII, who presented her to the Louvre.
When I considered putting together this series of Letters to Dead Artists, Alexandros of Antioch was understandably not at the top of the list of artists who’ve inspired me. However, that’s not how this challenge works. It’s an alphabetical challenge where you need to write a post for each letter of the alphabet during April. Nobody had come to mind for A and I was stoked to find Alexandros of Antioch and this personal connection. I didn’t have to stretch the truth.
Letter to Alexandros of Antioch
I am writing to you about a sculpture you created of Aphrodite many years ago, which has been found on the Greek island of Milos. By the way, I probably should tell you that the year is now 2018.
It must feel rather strange to receive a letter from so far into the future. A future, which is over two thousand years ahead of your time, and must look very strange indeed. There are cars, trains and planes and humans have even landed on the moon. Recently, a car was even launched into space. That even blew me away.
Unfortunately, I can’t tell you that I’m proud of everything we humans have done. We have destroyed so much and have enough weapons to blow up the planet many times over. We’ve destroyed entire species and now even the survival of our beautiful planet, is in doubt. Sometimes, I’m ashamed to be a human. However, then something wonderful happens and I am reminded of the good. Indeed, I am certain that there is even good in all of us.
Well, I’d like to ask you a very simple question…Could you please draw me a sketch of Aphrodite with her original arms just as you designed them. What she was doing? What is she trying to say and what thoughts are stuck behind those marble lips? She really looks like she’s holding something back. Perhaps, it’s the secret of real beauty. I don’t know, but wouldn’t it be wonderful if she could step down off the dais, and even speak… Goodness knows how many people she’s been watching and overhearing at the Louvre. I’d like to think she’s absorbed all their wisdom, but you never know. It could all just be drivel.
Anyway, please forgive me for asking so many questions, but my curiosity ran away from me. After all, it’s not every day you get to write a letter to the man who created Venus de Milo!
Thank you very much for your letter. It’s been awhile since I’ve received any mail.
I have to admit that I’m rather proud of Aphrodite and all that she’s become, just like any parent whose child becomes an icon, yet I’m pleased she’s still maintained her mystique.
However, I was devastated to read that her arms have been cut off. Why hasn’t anybody tried to fix her? Given her some new arms? Anything would do, although I’ve heard there are some wonderful prosthetics these days. She’d have much more fun waving and shaking hands with the crowds, rather than being so standoffish. She was never meant to be a victim. Why turn her into one?
Now, I will leave you with a piece of advice my new friend from the 21st century. You weren’t meant to turn over every stone and know what’s hiding underneath. We need unanswered questions, our mysteries, because if we have all the answers, then we’ll no longer need to search. If we stop searching, then we’ll forget to ask. We always need to wonder.
Give my love to Aphrodite and make sure you sort out those arms.
Yours in friendship,
Alexandros of Antioch
 Rachel Bradley, Dragonshadow, Women’s Redress Press, Sydney, 1989, p 4.