Facebook Censored a Stone Age Nude Sculpture, Venus of Willendorf [UPDATED]

An Italian woman’s post featuring the 30,000-year-old artifact was removed late last year; last month, the museum that houses it called out the social network.

A Facebook-safe version of the Venus of Willendorf (illustration by the author for Hyperallergic)
A Facebook-safe version of the Venus of Willendorf (illustration by the author for Hyperallergic)

An image of the Venus of Willendorf (ca 28,000–25,000 BCE), the iconic Stone Age sculpture of a female figure, is apparently too provocative to appear on a personal Facebook page. In late December 2017, an Italian woman named Laura Ghianda (who lists her occupation as “graffiti writer”) posted a photo of the ancient limestone nude on Facebook — only to have it removed for being deemed inappropriate, as the Art Newspaper and the AFP reported. Her attempts to appeal the decision were unsuccessful, though three images of the artwork she posted subsequently remain.

The Naturhistorisches Museum in Vienna, which houses the Venus of Willendorf, has brought the incident to the attention of a wider public and criticized Facebook’s reaction to the Paleolithic artifact. A January 9 post on the museum’s Facebook page, calling attention to the censorship of Ghianda’s image, proclaims: “Let the Venus be naked!”

The Venus of Willendorf (ca 28,000–25,000 BCE), limestone (photo courtesy and © the Naturhistorisches Museum Wien)
The Venus of Willendorf (ca 28,000–25,000 BCE), limestone (photo courtesy and © the Naturhistorisches Museum Wien)

“There has never been a complaint by visitors concerning the nakedness of the figurine and we never heard of anybody who could have been offended by the look at this artifact,” the museum’s director general, Christian Koeberl, said in a statement sent to Hyperallergic. “The perfection of the representation and harmonious style make the 29,500-year-old figure of the ‘Venus of Willendorf’ one of the most expressive works of art from the Paleolithic Age.”

Meanwhile, the Naturhistorisches Museum’s own Facebook posts, which also feature the Venus of Willendorf, have never run afoul of the site’s murky nudity policies. A spokesperson for the museum noted: “Our postings have never been deleted/censored by Facebook. During the last few days, for example, we published a post about our Valentine’s Day special with the Venus of Willendorf, animal sex, etc., and it stayed on Facebook.”

Though Facebook revised its policies in 2015 to allow “art that depicts nude figures,” images of artworks portraying nude figures are still taken down. Two years ago, for instance, the social network censored an image of Edvard Eriksen’s famous “Little Mermaid” statue in Copenhagen. Facebook is currently on trial in France for similar censorship of a 2011 post featuring Gustave Courbet’s “L’Origine du Monde” (1866). Though that work features a fairly detailed depiction of a nude woman’s crotch, the Venus of Willendorf is less literal and clearly stylizes the female figure.

The small sculpture, which measures just under four-and-a-half inches in height, was discovered near the Austrian town of Willendorf during a 1908 excavation conducted by Naturhistorisches Museum archaeologists. Analysis has shown that the limestone figure was previously coated in red ochre. Researchers believe that it was carved with flint tools more than 25,000 years ago, and consider it one of the most recognizable depictions of a nude female figure in human history.

Update, 3/2/2018, 11:45 am: In a comment to the AFP, a spokesperson for Facebook apologized for the censorship of the Venus of Willendorf, while apparently confusing the post in question with an advertisement.

“Our advertising policies do not allow nudity or implied nudity but we have an exception for statues. Therefore, the ad with this image should have been approved,” the spokesperson said. “We apologize for the error and have let the advertiser know we are approving their ad.”

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