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Art review: 'A Strange Magic: Gustave Moreau's Salomé' is absorbing

The UCLA Hammer Museum show dives deeply into a masterpiece based on the biblical story of John the Baptist's beheading.

September 28, 2012|By Christopher Knight, Los Angeles Times Art Critic
  • A portion of Gustave Moreau.'s "Salome Dancing before Herod."
A portion of Gustave Moreau.'s "Salome Dancing before Herod." (Robert Wedemeyer / Hammer…)

Gustave Moreau's painting of Salomé dancing before Herod is one of those rare episodes in narrative art when subject, style and material come together so seamlessly that two things happen: A viewer is transfixed and a moment in time is crystallized.

The extravagant 1876 canvas, which took the artist seven years to complete, is one of the stars of the UCLA Hammer Museum's small permanent collection of Old Master and 19th century paintings and sculptures. Now it is the subject of a modest but absorbing show there — a deep dive into a singular masterpiece. Moreau is a wonderfully strange artist, one who appeals to contemporary eyes for his distinctive eccentricity.

Yes, he was enthralled with the stuffy French Academy, taking to heart its ranking of history as art's most important subject. He got many of his cues from the widely revered leader of the Romantic school, Eugène Delacroix, whom Baudelaire described as being "passionately in love with passion." And, despite a fascination with the alien and exotic, he rarely strayed far from Paris. It's the painting that's a trip.

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The story is classic. Adapted from the New Testament gospels of Matthew and Mark, it tells how John the Baptist lost his head.

The snarled saga of sex-and-violence goes like this. Herodias, Salomé's mom, was sick of John bad-mouthing her own marriage to Herod — a divorced man, brother of her late husband and Rome's conniving agent in Galilee. (Jesus called Herod "that fox.") She convinced her comely daughter to dance provocatively for her stepdad in exchange for his granting a wish. She did, he did, and John's decapitation was the fulfilled request.

Celebrated artists had taken on the story before. Titian painted Salomé as a helplessly idealized beauty, solemnly staring at John's beatific head cradled on a platter like a babe in arms. Caravaggio went for high drama (of course), turning her lovely face away in revulsion as the executioner clutches the severed head by the hair — an animal kill held up for her inspection.

And Moreau? He dialed back the time frame. John and his wanted head are nowhere to be seen.

The masked and anonymous executioner is there, glancing furtively from the corner of his eye. So is a musician and an attendant, nestled in the atmospheric gloom behind her. For pointed effect the scene is observed by a sleek black panther — a feline predator.

Herod, that fox, is seated on a colossal throne in the middle of the picture. The throne — a fantasy of San Simeon proportions within the incense-infused palace interior — takes up two-thirds of the 41/2-foot-tall painting. (The figures are dwarfed.) Salomé, her lavish garments aflutter as if she had just completed a twirl, has come to a climactic stop in midair. The toes of her right foot hover just inches above the blood-red carpet.

Moreau has covered almost every inch of the luxuriant painting with elaborate filigree, an ornamental delirium that catapults Salomé's seductive effect on her lecherous stepdad. No wonder it took seven years to paint.

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The most beguiling feature, though, is more subtle and oblique. Salomé raises her left arm in a dramatic gesture, pointing across the canvas into empty space at the upper right. Pointing down from the left, a cascade of silvery light illuminates both her lovely head and an empty spot on the floor at the executioner's feet, right next to that deadly panther. The counterpoint causes the hallucinatory scene to rustle with foreboding.

The only two lines of visual action, one physical and the other optical, crisscross on Herod. X marks the spot.

Moreau's painting is a tour de force of indirect narrative exposition, and it helped to launch the fin de siècle fixation on the femme fatale as a subject. In France, the new Third Republic was flailing about for political stability, the latest in repeated efforts toward fulfilling the promise of the chaotic French Revolution. Society's historically limited roles for men and women were changing. As always, those with less power — in this case, women — became a symbol for threatening upheavals in established social order.

Joris-Karl Huysmans put it this way in his 1884 novel, "A rebours" (Against the Grain or Against Nature), where he described the Hammer's painting in detail: Moreau's Salomé is "the symbolic incarnation of world-old Vice, the goddess of immortal Hysteria, the Curse of Beauty supreme above all other beauties by the cataleptic spasm that stirs her flesh and steels her muscles — a monstrous Beast of the Apocalypse, indifferent, irresponsible, insensible, poisoning."

Phew!

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