Arrogance is a coverup. A lack of self-confidence. Results from resentment. Of any rejection.
Can only detract from a façade of beauty.
Princess Salomé is legendary in Biblical tales for her provocative “Dance of the Seven Veils” and her subsequent demand to be given the head of John the Baptist in return for performing it.
Salomé most certainly embraced the controversial and the perverse. Whereas John was said to have true spiritual credentials as the supposed baptizer of Jesus. Salomé, on the other hand, has been admired and depicted by artists for time immemorial.
Oscar Wilde and J.-K. Huysmans, two late-nineteenth-century literary figures, were captivated by Salomé’s character and her story. Wilde sharply maintains his focus on beauty and aesthetics. Huysmans, in contrast, zeroes in on the decadent.
Caroline and I are at Musée D’Orsay to see Huysmans: From Degas to Grünewald. A visual realization of the late 19th-century writings of Joris-Karl Huysmans.
Gare D’Orsay, an historic beaux-arts railroad station in Paris, closed in 1973. But its stunning, fin de siècle structure with its pink marble walls soon experiences a reincarnation. Reopening in 1986 as Musée D’Orsay, its great halls reemerge as great galleries.
February 2020, Covid-19 has yet to strike Europe or North America. Neither Caroline nor I nor anyone else having heard of social distancing. Face masks don’t exist. Quite simply who knew? The outbreak, however, is insidiously lurking just around the corner. Within mere days of our visiting the museum, the virus will erupt into a full-scale pandemic.
from decadence to devotion
Amidst the museum’s pink marble dividers, we behold Francesco Vezzoli’s Tortoise de Soirée bronze sculpture. Huysmans describes it in À Rebours (Against Nature) as collapsing beneath the weight of the glittering gemstones embedded in its shell.
Vezzoli served, here, as an art director. Just as Huysmans famously transforms artist’s visions into words, Vezzoli transforms them back into visual art. In this vein, walls of the exhibition and the carpet soon appear as red as the ones described in Huysmans À Rebours.
We stand there studying “The Apparition”, an impressive watercolor by French symbolist Gustave Moreau. It depicts Salomé dancing beneath an electrifying glow from the severed head of John the Baptist (see above).
THROUGH EYES OF OTHERS
Salomé has proven a truly intriguing figure for the modern creative community, the subject of works by Filippo Lippi, Rogier van der Weyden, Titian, Gustave Moreau, Aubrey Beardsley, Stéphane Mallarmé, Oscar Wilde and Richard Strauss.
Coming from a broken family, Salomé was desired by Herod, her stepfather/uncle, and used by, Heroidias, her mother. Love is forever absent or perverted. She comes across as cold, ruthless and uncompromising – used to having everything her way. But her satisfaction can be bought.
Most likely, if this whole crisis were to occur today, it would be subject to an endless array of high-stakes lawsuits and countersuits. Each principal surely would get to cherish a moment on center stage to express his or her opinion before the court.
Herod, the King or Tetrarch of Judea, fears John’s saintly powers and keeps the holy man imprisoned. He has John locked underground in a cistern beneath the king’s Galilee palace.
Although Herod by then is married to Herodias, Salomé’s mother, he cannot keep his eyes off his beautiful young stepdaughter. Totally obsessed, the Tetrarch presses Salomé to dance for him on his birthday. Were this happening in today’s “Me Too” age, Herod, with his insistence, might have had to defend himself against harassment charges.
Salomé, however, possesses little interest in Herod or his wealth and power. Rather she is physically attracted to John, but the holy man quickly spurns her. John earlier spurned Salomé’s mother because of Herodias’ prior marriage. It was to Herod’s late brother Phillip, who was Salomé’s father.
“Dance for me, Salomé, I beseech you,” pleads Herod in Wilde’s play. “If you dance for me you may ask of me what you will, and I will give it you, even unto the half of my kingdom.”
Salomé remains relentless in her refusal despite Herod’s endless attempts to dissuade her. Only grudgingly does she finally acquiesce and agree on one condition. Herod is to deliver her the head of John the Baptist.
Finally he gives in, convinced his reputation will be shattered if he breaks his word. So, Herod agrees execute John and deliver his head to Salomé.
When Salomé is given John’s head on a silver charger, she lovingly strokes the holy man’s lifeless face and hair. She kisses his lips… “Open thine eyes! Lift up thine eyelids, Iokanaan! Wherefore dost thou not look at me? Art thou afraid of me, Iokanaan, that thou wilt not look at me?” In Wilde’s play, Salomé knows John’s severed head can no longer deny her or her passion.
Herod’s face, as Gustave Moreau depicted it in detail, implies the Tetrarch’s disgust and anger. In contrast, Moreau shows Queen Herodias’ inherent pleasure.
Salomé’s earlier feeling of dejection eases as Wilde observes: “The mystery of love is greater than the mystery of death.” Salomé’s newfound passion reflects in her brilliant likeness that Moreau created.
writing / art
As Huysmans wrote: “There was one artist above all others whose talent revealed him in a transport of ecstasy: Gustave Moreau.” 1.
“The decadence of Huysmans’ artistic universe –and in particular that of his protagonists – is the maladie fin de siècle, marked by egocentricity, world-weariness and a perverse imagination.”2.
On the other hand, “Moreau exploits the visual medium to achieve a fluid, but harmonious fusion of the aesthetic and spiritual levels in a single image.”3.
Before the second half of the nineteenth century, Salomé was seen mainly in paintings that reflected “the sharp contrast between… [her] idealized beauty and the violence she caused.” 4.
Huysmans was equally infatuated by and critical of Salomé.
He cherished both Moreau’s colorful imagery of Herod’s stepdaughter and the sharp dialogue in Salomé Oscar Wilde’s 1892 one-act play, written in French, about her cold-blooded request. Even Huysmans own fictional character creations were openly critical of her.
The air in Paris, by now, had grown much heavier. The traffic lighter. Facial masks were starting to appear everywhere.
We had to mask up before heading to Musée Moreau, the artist’s former home and studio, to view the part of his collection devoted to biblical and mythological works.
As we climbed the cramped circular stairs to the upper floors at the museum rich with symbolism, we were amazed how prolific Moreau had been. How infatuated he had been with the impact of Salomé.
Far too many believe beauty has long equaled power. People have forever been obsessed with looking as beautiful as they conceivably can. Even if it involves cosmetic surgery. Or other physical alterations or adjustments. In 2021, beauty alone was a $211 billion industry. And it continues to grow rapidly.
No question, people would rather worship someone beautiful than criticize the individual or reveal that person’s flaws. Yet beauty shouldn’t serve as a shield for one’s actions as it did for Salomé. But somehow it still does.
It’s not hard to explain why a beautiful man or woman can get away with having an outrageous demand satisfied that a far less attractive person cannot. This practice, one naïvely hopes, will somehow start to steadily fade away.
1. Huysmans, Joris-Karl, “À Rebours” (Against Nature), 1884, translation: Brendan King, p. 81.
2. Lloyd, Joe, “Studio International”,a 1-22-20 review of the “Huysmans, Art Critic: From Degas to Grünewald, in the Eye of Francesco Vezzoli” exhibition.
3. Grigorian, Natasha, “Writings of Joris-Karl Huysmans and Gustave Moreau’s Paintings: Affinity of Divergence”; p. 294.
4. Ob. cit.; p.286.
About the Article
Exploring artists’ views of the consequences of Salomé’s confrontation with John the Baptist.