Monday, November 2, 2009

Five Women and Four Serpents

"Her black python, the great serpent.. was believed to be born of the earth's clay, since it emerges from the earth's depths and does not need feet to move over it; its progress recalled the rippling of rivers, its temperature the ancient, viscous darkness full of fertility, and the circle it describes, as it bites its own tail, the planetary system.." "The heavy tapestry shook, and above the cord holding it up, the python's head appeared. It came down slowly, like a drop of water running along a wall, crawled among the scattered garments, then, its tail stuck against the ground, reared up straight; and its eyes, more brilliant than carbuncles, fixed on Salammbô."

This vivid passage from Salammbô, Gustave Flaubert's 1862 novel of ancient Carthage, conveys all the exotic, erotic, and primal emotions that are recognisable elements of the woman+serpent theme. Flaubert's experimental novel, radically original for its time, sought to convey narrative through the sheer force of description. Lighting, color, scents and extended lists of exotic treasures are piled upon each other to create an atmosphere almost top-heavy with incense, ancient music, tapestries, ornaments, and precious stones and metals - an atmosphere captured in Gaston Bussière's sensual painting of the scene (above).

Flaubert's novel provides us with one of the most memorable woman+serpent encounters in fiction, but if we look to history for such an encounter, then the name which probably most readily springs to mind is that of Cleopatra, the queen of the Nile who reigned as one of the occupying Greek Ptolemy dynasty. The queen's elected form of suicide - to allow herself to be bitten by a poisonous asp (a small North African viper) has proven irresistible subject matter for artists; most of whom have taken the route of Jean-André Rixens (above).

Here, the queen who conquered the heart of Mark Anthony is portrayed as a suitably palid marble-colored corpse, her nudity eroticised by the partial covering of bed linen which reveals more of her body than it conceals (the detail, above). And any signs of the grim realities which are the symptoms of death by snakebite - swollen limbs blackened by necrosis with accompanying extensive morbid dermal blistering - are tastefully overlooked; as indeed they are in all such treatments of this subject. And where is the serpent? The picture could be a 'spot-the-snake' competition, because I have yet to find it.

Rixens' Cleopatra is one of many of it's kind, where the artist concerned has succumbed to the elements offered by the theme as an apparent pretext to show swooning and mostly nude female flesh. This would also seem to be the case with the version by Jan Massys (above), where the deadly reptile is reduced almost to a piece of decorative jewellery, and where the moment of death seems imbued with an orgasmic mysticism, as Massys reclines his classically-posed Cleopatra in pained yet graceful abandon to expire upon brocade cushions before a charmingly pastoral - and decidedly European - backdrop.

Compare Rixens' and Massys' treatments of the incident to Swiss symbolist Arnold Böcklin's version (above). Böcklin's Cleopatra was painted only two years earlier than Rixens' version, but here the artist plunges us into a very different world indeed. Böcklin steers himself deftly past any easy-option eroticism to confront what is actually happening. The dark shadow of Death itself slowly descends as a tangible black veil over the queen, and we are left in no doubt whatever that this is a flesh-and-blood woman who is actually in the act of dying. It is a brave and powerful image that, once seen, echoes in the mind.

But for all their varied treatments, one thing which unites the above paintings (at least; the three in which the serpent is visible) is the rather nonchalant - even unconvincing - way in which the snake itself has been portrayed (the detail from Bussière, above). The female anatomy on view is correct enough for us to conclude that the artists made use of models (although Massys seems to have relied upon a somewhat shaky memory), but the poor serpent is clearly from those artists' imaginations. It just is not that snakey.

Reason enough to include my third woman: an anonymous and mysterious femme fatale who seems to be a combination both of Cleopatra and of Salammbô. Charles Allen Winter's Fantasie Egyptienne (above), for all its formalised decorative background, presents us with a snake worthy of the name. This reticulated python (yes, it even can be identified by type) is clearly a living reptile, as serpentine as they come.

The sheen of moving light upon the scales, and the bunched muscle and rippling belly scales of the animal's coils (the detail, above), are as confidently portrayed as the woman's body (curiously, human knees are tricky things to convey convincingly in paint, but Winter carries off even this detail with surety), and the pattern of the floor mosaic (note the two scuttling frogs!) is a stylised version of the reptile's own markings. No attempt is made to provide the woman with a historically authentic costume, but the title of the piece makes it plain that this is, in any case, intended as a work of fantasy.

A journey into Ancient Greek mythology produces my fourth woman. Harmonia could claim stunning parentage, being the daughter of the gods Venus and Mars. She was also the wife of Cadmus, the hero and founder of the city of Thebes. But misfortune followed the couple, for Cadmus had killed a sacred serpent, and for this violation the gods meted out rough justice by transforming him into a snake. Evelyn de Morgan's treatment of this story (above) conveys all the bewilderment of Harmonia, as the transformed Cadmus attempts desperately to embrace his beloved wife with his coils.

The serpentine writhings are vividly conveyed by de Morgan, and even if the artist does take liberties with the serpent's length, the bewildered anguish of Harmonia (the detail, above) is plain enough. And despite her nude heroine, de Morgan understands well enough how to keep any eroticism in check with a combination of classical pose and poigantly-expressed emotions. But what became of Harmonia? It seems that in the end the gods were merciful in their own inscrutable way. Rather than granting Cadmus his former human state, Harmonia was herself transformed into a serpent. In the wilds of the Grecian landscape the two snakes sometimes can be seen together, entwined passionately in each others' coils.

Salammbô, Cleopatra, the unnamed Egyptienne, and Harmonia. That is a count of four women and four serpents. There is no serpent to accompany my fifth woman, for the fifth woman is herself the serpent. Isobel Gloag's The Kiss of the Enchantress (above) portrays a lamia, that seductive creature of legend that is half-woman, half-snake, claiming her knightly victim. On the banks of a twilit river lined with pollarded willows, the knight willingly succumbs to the creature's embrace as startled rabbits scuttle away. We are left to guess the outcome of this mysterious encounter, but in spite of the crucifix which he protectively clutches, a combination of encircling coils and equally-encircling thorny briars suggest that this knight's fate is already sealed.

There is, of course, another famed woman+serpent combination whose portrayal has been a much-favored and diversely-treated theme of artists through the centuries. But this post being my longest to date, that story will now have to wait. And far and forbidden Eden is a story in itself.

Artist: Gaston Bussière
Work: 'La Scène du Serpent', from Salammbô, 1910
Medium: Oils
Location: Musée Municipal des Ursulines, Macon

Artist: Jean-André Rixens
Work: The Death of Cleopatra, 1874
Medium: Oils
Location: Musée des Augustins, Toulouse

Artist: Jan Massys
Work: Cleopatra, c.1565
Medium: Oils
Location: Galleria Antiquaria L'Intrigo , Milan

Artist: Arnold Böcklin
Work: Dying Cleopatra, 1872
Medium: Oils
Location: Untraced

Artist: Charles Allen Winter
Work: Fantasie Egyptienne, 1898
Medium: Oils
Location: The Collection of Barry Friedman Ltd., New York

Artist: Evelyn de Morgan
Work: Cadmus and Harmonia, 1877
Medium: Oils
Location: The de Morgan Centre, London

Artist: Isobel Lilian Gloag
Work: The Kiss of the Enchantress, c.1890
Medium: Watercolor
Location: Private collection

'Salammbô', by Gustave Flaubert. Translated from the French by A.J. Krailsheimer.
Penguin Classics edition, 1977.
'Femme Fatale: Images of Evil and Fascinating Women', by Patrick Bade. Ash and Grant Ltd., 1979.
'Bulfinch's Mythology', by Thomas Bulfinch. Modern abridgment by Edmund Fuller. Dell Publishing, 1967.

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