Friday, 6 September 2013

Go go Viragos

John William Godward: The Priestess (1895) There's an alternate version by the same artist here for those who like their priestesses softer and more nude.
Let's face it, most Victorian artists and art-lovers wanted to see women looking winsome and helpless. Even the dangerous mythological subjects - like mermaids and witches - had to be dangerous in an alluring, feminine way, so that you wouldn't feel too bad about being killed by them. But nothing's ever simple when it comes to sexual fantasy. There was always a (smaller) market for the art-loving gentleman who liked his women as ball-breakers...
Pedro Americo: Judith and Holofernes (1885)

Judith vs Holofernes is the prime example of this theme. In fact Judith's many MANY appearances in paintings through the centuries could easily make up a whole blog-post on their own. Judith is an Old Testament heroine: when Israel was under seige by the Assyrians, she set out with a hamper of wine and sandwiches to the tent of enemy general Holofernes, got him drunk and happy, and then cut his head off. Depictions of Judith and Holofernes range from the subtle (above) to the outright sadistic.


James Tissot: Jael Smote Sisera, and Slew Him (1902)
Jael is a sort of Judith-alike who was more an opportunist than a planner. Defeated enemy general Sisera happened to call in at her tent for shelter. She fed him a large bowl of milk, shagged him (seven times, according to the Jewish tradition) into a stupor and then hammered a tent-peg through his head and into the ground while he slept. To rapturous acclaim.

James Northcote: Jael and Sisera (1787)
Sticking with the Bible, and beheadings, we have Salome. The twerking she did for her stepfather King Herod drove him so crazy that he promised her anything she wanted - which turned out (at her mother's urging) to be the head of John the Baptist on a platter.

F. Luis Mora: Salome (1899)

There is no escaping the sado-masochistic aura artists have imbued this story with ever since. A devastatingly sexy woman who wants to cut off your head - it's the ultimate castration fear/fantasy.

Aubrey Beardsley:  Salome (1893)
From party princess to women who will kill to be queen ... Here's Lady Macbeth crowning herself with the murdered Duncan's crown.

John Singer Sargent: Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth (1889)
Interestingly, this is a portrait from life - Ellen Terry was a Victorian actress who portrayed Lady Macbeth onstage, and the green dress (made of thousands of shiny beetle wings) still exists.

And here's the ultimate hardcase queen: Clytemnesta, fresh from slaughtering her husband in the bath:

John Collier: Clytemnestra (1882)
(To be fair, Clytemnestra's marriage was probably doomed anyway. Agammenon sacrificed their daughter Iphigenia to the gods in exchange for a good wind for his ships - then he buggered off to the Trojan War for 10 years, and when he reappeared it was with a captive Trojan princess in tow. Marriage counseling just wasn't going to cut it.)

It's pleasing to me that during a time when the self-effacing Virtuous Woman was put on a pedestal by society, there were still people out there deeply drawn to icons with ... more grit.
Some of us just like Scary.

The statue of Boadicea at Westminster Bridge London - erected 1905

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