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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe C-Word, TV review
Arts and Entertainment
The Ridiculous Six has been produced by Adam Sandler, who also stars in it
filmNew controversy after nine Native American actors walked off set
Danny Jones was in the Wales squad for the 2013 World Cup
rugby leagueKeighley Cougars half-back was taken off after just four minutes
Life and Style
The original ZX Spectrum was simple to plug into your TV and get playing on
techThirty years on, the ZX Spectrum is back, after a fashion
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
14 best kids' hoodies

14 best kids' hoodies

Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

The acceptable face of the Emirates

Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk