Salambo, by Maurice Ferrary. Bronze and Marble. Cortesy of the Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight.

As the commentary about Salambo correctly observes, Ferrary's use of different materials, here bronze and marble, also characterized work created by Alfred Gilbert, Edward Onslow Ford, William Goscombe John, and others of British school of New Sculpture. Pointing out that the French sculptor illustrated a moment in Gustave Flaubert's novel of the same name, the commentary explains that in “Flaubert's work, Salammbo was the sister or half sister of Hannibal, a virgin and a devotee of the cult of the goddess Tanith (the eternal Venus or the embodiment of the female spirit). As a result Salammbo's life was one of reverie, innocence and mysticism. She adored the voluptuous and fecund goddess only in her most ethereal and pure form, that of the moon,” which, one may add, departs from usual classical myth in which Diana, a chaste goddess very different from Venus, is usually associated with the moon.

Ferrary depicts the moment when Salambo prepares to save her people by retrieving “the sacred veil which protected Carthage and kept her powerful” from barbarians who have stolen it. The commentary continues,

Ferrary's transcription of the scene is literal, "the python turned downwards and resting the centre of its body upon the nape of her neck, allowed its head and tail to hang like a broken necklace with both ends trailing to the ground. Salammbo rolled it around her sides, under her arms and between her knees; then taking it by the jaw she brought the little triangular mouth to the edge of her teeth and half shutting her eyes threw herself back beneath the rays of the moon". Salammbo's expression is one of ecstasy and mysticism; her beautiful naked body is offered to her beloved deity, to her people, the barbarian Matho, who stole the veil as well as the spectators. . . . In the fine arts tradition women are often represented as either sensualised, beautiful or evil, because of their gender and as descendants of the sinful Eve who led man astray. 'Salammbo' is however one of the few heroic women prepared to sacrifice her life for her people.

The one central, rather bizarre point about the museum's emphasis upon Salambo's supposed “mystical passion” is that it fails to mention both Flaubert's and Ferrary's blatant emphasis upon raw sexuality. Upon encountering the idea that both novelist and sculptor concerned themselves solely with “mystical passion,” I find myself reminded of a Shakespearean scholar I knew, who liked to respond to ignorant or downright clueless remarks by telling a tale involving the Duke of Wellington, surely one of the most famous men of his time. One day a man walked up to him and said, “Mr. Smith, I believe?”To which the Prime Minsister and hero of Waterloo responsed, "If you can believe that, Sir, you can believe anything." Are the museum authorities trying to protect schoolchildren?

Certainly, Ferrary has created one of the most explicitly sexual representations of a woman in nineteenth-century sculpture found in Great Britain, even more so than the three-dimensional pin-ups in the Musée d'Orsay by Alexandre Schoenewerk and Auguste Jean-Baptiste Clésinger. True, religion, literature, and art have a long tradition presenting mystical experience in quasi-erotic form, Bernini's St. Teresa being the most famous example in sculpture. Poets from Donne to Rumi have famously described religious experience in sexualized terms, but there was no ambiguity in their eroticized verse. And St. Teresa wasn't nude, as is Salambo — except for those golden anklets, which emphasize her lush nudity of a kind particular favored by Victorian male viewers.



Click on these images for larger pictures. Photographs and caption by Robert Freidus. Formatting and commentary by George P. Landow. Courtesy of the Lady Lever Art Gallery.

Another point about the entire sculpture that demands mention is the extraordinarly unattractive porcine figure representing Tanith, who with her serpent appears more evil, even satanic, than divine. In the manner characteristic of both British and European Decadents, Ferrary's Salambo thus combines beauty and evil, using each to intensify the other. Like the poetry and painting of the Decadents, Salambo employs extreme or hyperbolic juxtaposition for powperful effects and refers to beliefs in which the artist does not believe. As Richard Le Gallienne writes satirically in "The Décadent to His Soul" (English Poems, 1892), "Sin is no sin when virtue is forgot. / It is so good in sin to keep in sight. . . Ah, that's the thrill!"

References

Maurice Ferrary's Salambo. Lady Lever Art Gallery Site. Web. 22 June 2011.

Gilman, Richard.Decadence: The Strange Life of an Epithet. N.Y.: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1979.

Urban, Otto M. In Morbid Colors: Art and the Idea of Decadence in the Bphemian Lands, 1880-1914. Prague: Municipal House and Arbor Vitae Press, 2006.


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Last modified 19 June 2011