Friday, 16 November 2012

The Dark Arts

TRIGGER WARNING: sex and death and Victorian misogyny

I often post about Victorian paintings, and I'm delighted every time I come across another example of sexuality, kinkiness or downright perversion creeping into the respectable world of the fine arts. This sneakiness is a source of delight and much head-scratching for me (Is it unconscious? Is it rank hypocrisy? Is it deliberate subversion? Is it pure capitalist opportunism?).

Ernest Normand (1859-1923): The Bitter Draught of Slavery
[click to expand pictures]

But while choosing another Orientalist picture to share last week, I was reminded that I have several examples on file of pictures that I've deliberately avoided posting in the past, because they actually step over the boundary of Kinkdom into areas that are, to my mind, genuinely disturbing. I'm not talking about the "slave market" subgenre of paintings like the one above, which is certainly predicated on what we would now recognise as BDSM leanings in the prospective viewer/purchaser.

I'm not even talking about mere depictions of dead bodies, as here:

George Frederic Watts (1817-1904): Found Drowned
(I think this would have been intended to provoke feelings of pity, and raise awareness of grim social realities, even though it looks romanticised to us. "Found Drowned" is about a very specific form of suicide. Self-harm, like all forms of human behaviour, conforms to societal templates, and at that time a young woman throwing herself into the Thames would almost certainly have done it because of sexual disgrace - she's fallen pregnant out of wedlock, and all viewers of the painting would understand that.)

But there are paintings, particularly by the Orientalists, that I keep tucked away in a file tastefully titled "Victorian Snuff."

Here's one.

Z Rozkazu: On the orders of the Padishah (1881)
 It looks at first like a rather beautiful reclining nude on an oriental divan. Take a closer look and you can see that the woman - a member of the padishah's harem, clearly - has been strangled with a red silk cord. In her death throes she's clawed at the cushions and knocked over an occasional table. This isn't social commentary: this is necrophilia.

And again:

Theodore Jacques Ralli (1852-1909): Ah! Jalouse Entre les Jalouses
The murderer this time is a woman. One harem resident has had a violent fight with her rival - there goes the occasional table again - and put her in her place for good. She now contemplates the scene, along with the viewer. 

And if you are feeling particularly sadistic:

Ferencz-Franz Eisenhut: Before the Punishment (1890)
Two concubines lie naked in the stocks, on a beautifully depicted carpet, awaiting punishment for some undefined (and probably arbitrary) transgression. What that punishment will entail is strongly implied by the guard behind them, busy oiling his sword, and the spread sheet beneath their heads. The titilation of this painting lies in the emphatic sexuality of the women, and their utter helplessness before the murderous whim of their master.

But don't think it's always women who end up dead:

Jean-Leon Gerome (1824-1904) : The Heads of the Rebel Beys at the Mosque of El-Hasanein, Cairo.

Admittedly, these male corpses aren't sexualised. That would be "deviant," after all ...

Is it just a tad ironic that respectable upper-class Westerners should choose to express their disapproval of "oriental cruelty" by hanging fabulously attractive pictures of it in their homes?

But hey, I'm a big fan of irony.


t'Sade said...

I love that artistic style. The content is kind of cool though, more so with the "grammar" as it were of violence (the spilled table, facing away from the viewer).

Also good to know they were such as strange as us.

Janine Ashbless said...

One thing I didn't mention is that back then it was only the early days of photography, so to depict a full colour scene in all its detail and "realism" you had to resort to paint. Of course, as you say, a grammar of meaning and symbolism evolved even in the most apparantly photo-realistic of pictures. It's important to remeber that these pictures are fictions - not in the sense that they lie about what happened, but in the sense that they are constructs, and hyper-real, and are designed for consumption by the viewer.

Craig Sorensen said...

Wow, that's fascinating. I have to say, you have really opened my eyes to some interesting perspectives regarding those kinky Victorians.

Thank you!

Janine Ashbless said...

Hope I haven't put you off, Craig!

Craig Sorensen said...

Not at all, Janine!