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Scientists unlock the secrets of women's sexual attractiveness...but beauty's still in eye of beholder

WHEN the Italian poet D'Annunzio visited Maillol's studio he admired the elegaic, classical sculptures on view but let it be known that he preferred his women a little thinner.

Maillol was indignant. Of course he realised that, by urbane modern tastes, his women were rustic, stocky, compact. But the point of his art wasn't sexual craving so much as spiritual well-being. The viewer is supposed to think of the Golden Age, not a rendezvous.

Art is far from a reliable barometer of past sexual preferences because although the bodies of women of child-bearing age have been a relatively constant subject throughout its history, an enormous variety of different ideals have been projected on the female form.

Even when it comes to the goddess of love, the ideal isn't single-tracked, according to Plato, for whom there were two distinct Venuses: Venus Coelestis and Venus Naturalis, one for the libido, the other for more rarefied emotions.

It is with trepidation, therefore, that one should re-visit the nudist canon with Dr Tovee's vital statistics in search of further confirmation, among the lovelies of the past, of the findings of his researches among 40 lusty Newcastle undergrads.

The earliest two reproductions in Kenneth Clark's classic study, The Nude, are of the "Venus" of Willendorf, a paleolithic carving of such extraordinary ampleness that the supposedly ideal hip to waist ratio of 0.7 is inverted (and more!), and a Cycladic doll, who with her waif-like torso would not be out of place next to Kate Moss on the catwalk. But who's to say that the maker of either image sought an accurate depiction of a normal woman, let alone a desirable one? Reproduction is not the only urge in art, any more than in sex.

Even if artistic images were to be treated as neutral documentation, it is unlikely that the "optimum body-mass index" would reveal a common, biologically-determined ideal. For artistic ideals to reflect sexual libido we'd need to believe that nudes are drawn from life, or at least from longings based on experience. We'd also need to believe that the patron's libido overrules the artist's ideals, which is no more likely than a shopper's needs influencing a couturier's designs (according to Giorgio Armani, incidentally, Claudia Schiffer's proportions are "graceless").

As Kenneth Clark says, the nude is not so much a subject as a form: it can be filled with any number of preoccupations, aesthetic, sensual, intellectual. Flesh and its amplitude can likewise have symbolic meanings which transcend the changing shape of shapeliness: Courbet's earth godesses, more Rubenesque than Rubens, are as much about politics as lust.

In the final analysis, it's as likely that art should influence sexual

tastes as the other way around. The depicted nude establishes an ideal to be sought after in the real world.