Barnett Suskind—especially the female nude body, usually as seen through the male eye—is perhaps the oldest in the history of art. With good reason: it conveys our concern with the condition of our own bodies—our fundamental body narcissism, one might say, recalling that Narcissus fell in love with his own naked body, rather than that of the nymph Echo who pursued him with her love. The female nude has always been a symbol of sovereign insularity—Venus has always been associated with vanity, as the numerous images of her with a mirror indicate–however desirable her body may be by reason of its beauty.
What is the place of Barnett Suskind’s Big Venuses, as I call them, by reason of the size as well as beauty of their bodies, in this very rich tradition of the narcissistic female nude? Venus has been secularized in modernity: one only has to compare Titian’s graceful Venus of Urbino to Manet’ s sluttish Olympia to get the point.
De-idealized—and de-feminized, one might add—Olympia’s boyish body becomes a crude caricature of beauty. Manet’s Olympia is shocking, indeed, has come to symbolize the de-mystifying shock of the new: her vulgarized nudity is new in the history of art, even as her thinness seems to echo the thinness of Cranach’s Venuses. But their thin bodies are uncannily elegant, while Olympia’s bony thinness—almost anorexic–conveys her emotional barrenness, not to say emptiness. A famous editor of a woman’s magazine once said that you can never be too thin or have too much money, never realizing that the thinness of the modern model—the so-called glamour girl–suggests her superficiality and her selling of her body for money implies that she has no mind let alone self-respect. Olympia’s body has lost its dignity, confirming that she is a symbol of vice, and with that viciously realistic.
Suskind restores opulence to the female body, and with that dignity—a certain majesty: the majesty of the primordial. It goes far beyond the opulence of Rubens’s Venuses, who remain worldly however divine in name. Neither Ruben’s Venuses, nor those of Titian, Manet, and Cranach, have the primordial quality of Suskind’s Venuses. It is this—their primordial opulence—which makes them unique in the history of modern art. They restore us to the prehistory of the female body—restore the transcendental opulence of the mythical Magna Mater, the fertility goddess envisioned in the Venus of Willendorf and similar sculptures. Suskind returns to the “original female,” that is, the female who has the origins within her, who is creatively pregnant. She is the muse writ cosmically large, filling the canvas to suggest her self-sufficiency and hermetic self-containment. The body of Suskind’s Big Venus is the eternal feminine alternative to the debased, trivialized, devalued modernized female body that begins its reign with Manet’s cheap courtesan, however much she now covers her cheapness with glamour.
Kenneth Clark famously distinguished between the naked and the nude—the empirical body, with all its blemishes and awkwardnesses, and the idealized, well-proportioned body, perfected into a symbol of transcendence and symbolizing what Freud called the ego ideal. The body of Suskind’s Big Venus has the particularities of the naked and the ideality of the nude—and, even more rare in the discourse of the nude, be it traditional or modern, archetypal primodiality. It is this saving grace that makes it unique and peculiarly post-modern, if post-modern means abandoning the distortion and fragmentation that beset and compromised the body in modern art—perhaps most noteworthily in Picasso—to recover a sense of its fullness and wholeness. The Big Venus, full-bodied and fecund, is clearly Suskind’s muse—a projection of his own pregnant creativity–and a rather unexpected and unusual representation of the muse: she has been in hiding since she first appeared at the dawn of art.
Suskind has made many expressionist portraits of his contemporaries, showing his gift for grasping psychic reality, and his Big Venus shows his ability to observe his own psychic reality, that is, to represent his own anima. The figures in Suskind’s psychodynamic portraits seem to be in a state of impending emotional disintegration—intensely suffering, as the painterly forcefulness with which they are represented suggest. But his Big Venus is completely integrated–no loose gestural threads we can pull to unravel her body. Her seamless body, with its tranquil smoothness—the delicate skin that holds its bulk together—hasn’t the slightest hint of the anxiety that permeates Suskind’s portrait heads, suggesting that it embodies a new-found sense of creative confidence and the achievement of self-integration.