Venus of Willendorf
The Venus of Willendorf is a small statue of a voluptuous woman from 30,000 years ago. She’s one of the oldest works of art ever discovered. Carved of oolite limestone, she is believed to have been painted entirely in red ochre. Due to her pronounced secondary sex characteristics (heaving breasts, ample buttocks, and exaggerated genitalia), those who discovered her presumed her to be just one more faceless fertility goddess.
I do not often see myself represented often in art. When I go to museums, a particular type of woman is immortalized and hung on gallery walls. But no one would describe me in those terms: I am not frail or fragile, blonde or slight, petite or idealized. I am more like the words they use to describe this statue of Venus, this ancient goddess: “strangely compelling,” “a corpulent, mature woman,” and even “pornographic.” When I look at her, she looks like me. She does not fit the mold, and the patriarchy isn’t quite sure what to do with her.
She is my people.
Years ago, while performing in Vienna, Austria, I made a pilgrimage to her. I was surprised that she was tiny, only about four and a half inches tall, housed at the Natural History Museum in a small, glass box atop black velvet and a round mirror—hardly the kind of representation I expected for such a lady. A single light shone on her from above, and she stood all alone off to the side of the room. Venus was displayed the same way your Grandma might show her most-prized Praying Angel Precious Moments statue or your 8th-grade confirmation picture – it was a point of honor. Yet, only a little care was given to this ancient, supposedly sacred object.
In a paper published in February 2022, anthropologists Weber, Lukeneder, and Harzhauser from the Natural History Museum discovered that Venus’ origins differed from what they thought. They postulated that our Venus most likely originated not in Germany but in Northern Italy near Lake Garda, about 400 miles from where she was discovered on the banks of the Danube.
She is Italian. Again, like me.
Art can only be interpreted through our modern biases. We guess at the artist’s intention through the prism of our reality. The men who found her defined her by her appearance. And, seeing her exaggerated body parts, fertility was the only answer they could come up with as to why she would be immortalized. But in 1996, art historian LeRoy McDermott offered an alternative view. He stated that these Paleolithic figurines were created from a unique perspective: “The lozenge perspective eschews anatomical accuracy in favor of the individual’s perspective of her body.” I.E., this may have been a self-portrait of a woman looking down at her body and documenting it as art.
Y’all, this was a selfie.
This primitive hottie carved herself, every inch, dimple, curve, and valley, into this rock for her boyfriend to carry in his pocket, to caress in the palm of his hand. Venus saw this rock and thought something along the lines of, “Yo, this rock looks just like me! I am shaken. Bruh, it’s like low-key hot. My bf Garf is gonna freaking love this!” A nomadic hunter like Garf needed something to keep him warm at night on hunting missions, and this queen knew that her thick thighs could save lives.
So, sitting in her Italian village, the wooly mammoths grazing on the mountains, she looked down and captured her point of view. No mirrors, no front-facing cameras, no Polaroids. She carved what she saw: her soft, pendulous breasts, wide hips, and juicy thighs. Her petite arms rested atop her breasts, her legs bent as she craned to get a good look at her booty galore.
She didn’t etch her face onto the totem, just as you don’t include your head on the nudes he asks you to send at 3 am. It may have been 23,000 years before the invention of the wheel, but our girl wasn’t dumb.
Venus is a woman representing herself: an artisan and a visionary. An apple-shaped goddess saying you can’t ever erase me, I am here, I exist, I matter, see me.
Aimee McKay is a writer and actress who has appeared in 2 Broke Girls, New Girl, Arrested Development, and others. She performed sketch and improv with the Second City Touring Company. In her spare time, she guides giant helium balloons down parade routes. She has just completed her first essay collection.