Monday, 31 October 2011

I Want Your Head on a Plate !

I am currently working on a couple of very dignified pieces to do with my visits to two fine exhibitions over the weekend, but in the meantime, as it’s Halloween, I thought I’d do a piece about something scary. Now, I love a good scare as much as the next person, but what I really like is to be unsettled. Oddly, that makes me think of what we had to do to our chicken when she went broody last year, but that’s not really what I mean. What I mean is something innocuous that has sinister purpose, something both beautiful and horrific. Observe this…

The Dance of Salome (1885) Robert Fowler
Oh, the horror. Okay, it’s not terrifying, it’s not Drag Me to Hell, but I find the subject of Salome very unsettling, not least in the very varied manner that the Victorians handled it. Take the above, for example. To be honest, I had to check it was really a Salome image, it really could be anything by Moore, or Leighton, or Alma Tadema (or Robert Fowler, who I need to know more about as I’ve never heard of him) and could be any number of ‘idle women in classical dress’, a genre we love so well. I do not get ‘psychotic Biblical murderess’ from the picture, it’s just a bit titillating or from the ‘gauzy boobs’ end of the market.

Salome (1906) Franz von Stuck
Yes, well, now I’m disturbed. I have a dance for many things, but I do not have a severed head dance. Von Stuck’s Salome is vampire pale and bends lithely in her utter orgasmic joy of being presented with a head on a plate. She is a creature of insane evil and damn sexy with it. Maybe this is what a Victorian chap was after to hang on his wall? Despite her lack of covering, Salome is not a temptress like, for example Delilah, she is a psychotic virgin, whose default, when asked what she wants, isn’t ‘Pony’ like any normal girl.

Salome Receiving the Head of St John the Baptist (1896) Lovis Corinth
This has to be one of my favourite Salome pictures because it is so damn mundane in its horror. Look at how ghostly and heavily made-up Salome’s face is as she fondles the severed head presented to her. The chap who did the slicing stands around slightly awkwardly to the side, while they bundle the body of the unfortunate saint off-stage. Everyone look pleased and jolly as if they have just presented her with a nice bunch of flowers or a book token, but no, it’s a severed head. Grimness itself is that her nipples almost graze the beard as she bends to look at her prize. Urgh, shudder.

Salome (1890) Ella Ferris Pell
When looking at Victorian images of Salome, it’s easy to think it begins and ends with the Wilde/Beardsley black and white twists of woman-beast, but there are some other fascinating depictions, including Pell’s rather dignified painting. Salome is given the grace and nobility usually reserved for Judith (yet another chick-and-severed-head combo, but entirely different in context). Compared with the other pallid vampires, this Salome is a rosy cheeked, round hipped gem with great hair and an attention-seeking top. There is nothing unhinged about this young woman, no rolling eyes and insanely giggling lips, she is remarkably still. Poised with her plate, she looks like she knows what she wants and is aware of everything she has to do to achieve her nefarious ends. It is tempting to find this Salome very attractive, but you forget she is holding a plate for a severed head, which is the one thing she desires most in the world.  Possibly Pell is reaching for a Salome who is the weary pawn of her mother, the one who actually wants St John dead.  Isn't it odd how the story twists into a tale of lust of an old king for a young girl?  Salome's Mum seems to play no part in the Victorian retelling, which is far more of a cautionary tale about spoiling your children.  It's rather like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in many ways...mmmm, chocolate, I'd dance for chocolate...but I digress...

Salome (1898) Juana Romani
The most 'Victorian; image of Salome has to be the funniest. She sits patiently with her plate and sword, as if she waiting her turn at the Antiques Roadshow. Her hair is a bit out of control, so she must be a bit mental, and her dress is off the shoulder, so she must be a sex mad psycho. The fact that she is looking coyly at her viewers and doesn’t really seem in danger of doing very much kind of undoes her power. Mind you, it’s one of the few where she brings her own sword, usually she only has the plate, so maybe I should be a bit more wary of her.

Salome Henri Regnault
So why did the Victorians like Salome? Well, obviously it’s a bona fide reason to show some nipple in a Biblical sense, but also she is a villain of uncontrolled sexuality. The various depictions of Salome show a very attractive, semi-clad young woman who may kill you. Granted, most of the images come from the morbid, self-destructive period towards the end of the century, but Salome seemed to embody a sense of hungry evil, sometimes unhinged, sometimes cold and calculating. Salome seems to get away scot free in the Bible, but not in various dramatic versions. She in turn is killed by Herod, and all is right with the world, sort of. Interesting how we don’t see that aspect portrayed, only her wild sexy dance and her head-fingering, as if we don’t really want her to have her comeuppance because sometimes the world is more interesting if the wild woman is still on the loose…

Well, a quiet word to the gentleman who read this blog: If you see a beautiful young woman with a large plate, run like hell! I wouldn't want to lose either of you...


  1. Always had a soft spot for Salome! Great post

  2. She knew what she have to admire that :)

  3. I really loved this post and I found it very educational. Thank you

  4. Just one thing... it wasn't Salome who wanted his head, it was her mother. She went and asked her mom what she should ask for, and her mother, who was tired of John's bad-mouthing her, came up with the head-on-platter bit.

    Now there's a mother-daughter relationship with issues...

  5. Indeed, and her mother knew her step-father culdn't say no to his lovely dancing step-daughter. I'm sure I saw that episode of Jeremy Kyle.

    Thanks for your comments :)


Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx