Is this painting erotic or horrifying? Magnetic or repellent? I ran across it one day while looking for images to illustrate the Classical myth of Ajax and Cassandra. The subject is rape. And yet I couldn’t stop looking. After living with it for months, I still find it disturbingly beautiful.
As the Greeks sacked the fallen city of Troy, they raped and pillaged. “Little” Ajax (the son of Oileus, not the more famous son of Telamon) is said to have dragged the Trojan princess Cassandra from the very altar of Athena and raped her on the spot. The impious act cost him his life on the return voyage, when the outraged goddess saw to it that he was shipwrecked (and in one version of the myth, impaled on a sharp rock).
This is perhaps the most famous painting by Solomon J. Solomon (1860-1927), a British artist who was influenced by Leighton and Alma-Tadema. For the academic painters of the day, mythological subjects offered a “respectable,” even prestigious opportunity to paint nudes. Solomon’s painting, however, is unusual in its overt eroticism. Ajax’s powerful, heavily muscled body contrasts with the soft curves of Cassandra. His biceps, forearm and clenched fist form a counterpoint to the feminine arm and hand reaching out in supplication to Athena. In a different context, Cassandra’s pose could be one of sexual abandon. Her face is deliberately obscured, so that the viewer can freely enjoy her body without taking her personhood into account. Meanwhile Ajax glares at the viewer, as though to challenge any opponent who might dare to dispute his prize.
Greek images of the rape were considerably less erotic, because the visual tradition of the sack of Troy focused on the brutality of the conquerors. King Priam was killed at an altar of the gods, and his infant grandson Astyanax was butchered by Achilles’ son Pyrrhus, or thrown from the citadel. What interested the Greeks was the sacrilegious nature of Ajax’s act. Not so much the rape itself, but the fact that Ajax violated the asylum of the sanctuary. Cassandra is shown in full or partial undress to suggest her fate at Ajax’s hands, but Ajax always grasps her by the hair. The gesture prevents the viewer from romanticizing of the scene, and reveals the act of rape for what it is, a demonstration of one person’s total control over another.
Solomon’s painting, then, is not an image of a rape, but of a rape fantasy. Rape fantasies cause a lot of angst and soul-searching among women, some of whom feel guilt if they find them arousing, and indignation if other people do. Although a feminist, I am not sympathetic to political correctness, and I don’t think artists have a responsibility to produce only morally improving images. Human sexuality is complex, and our sexual urges are influenced by mammalian behaviors of dominance and submission. I have written elsewhere that a woman’s rape fantasy is the opposite of a rape, because she is always in control of what happens. But what of a man’s rape fantasy, a fantasy of being the aggressor (which is how I would classify Solomon’s painting)? Is there a point at which we draw the line, and refuse to look? As Katharine Hepburn said to Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen:
“Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we were put on this earth to rise above.”
given the week the Greeks are having, it’s most appropriate, they have been pillaged more than once
This is a very touchy subject you are raising. Rape cannot be condoned, of course, and yes, I also would always expect people to be respectful/aware of other’s triggers/fears/traumas. And sometimes it is not entirely clear-cut whether a work of art is deliberately provocative (for good reasons) or merely lecherous. I suppose I veer to the liberal side here, too, because provocation is an engine that drives art (and subsequently society).
I’m interested in the cultural conditions that made this a “respectable” piece of art. It’s like many other mythological nudes of the time, but with this very attention-grabbing difference. I wonder if he was actually trying to provoke, or whether he thought of this more as a technical piece?
A women’s fantasy of being raped/controlled (in my view) is very different to that of a males rape fantasy. I find the painting compelling as well but I am also reminded of the atrocities against women that still plague our world and I also wonder where the line should be drawn.
Thanks for the comment, Cheer. To me it’s interesting that the ancient vase painters were more aware of the context of the myth, how it was associated with atrocities of war, while the modern painter was able to isolate it as a set piece.
I can’t help wondering who the model for Ajax might have been 🙂
Exactly, some old school reality there. And whoever that model was…well, ‘he fine.’ 😁
Hm, interesting how things circle around and there are coincidences, or not? Just this week i am in the middle of a storm about a rape scene presented on stage during a Rossini opera i attended and which cause the boos of some members of the audience to nearly stop the evening in its tracks. And i’m also the one who stumbled upon the blurred Botticelli…. And here we are looking at this and trying to deal with conflicting feelings…
I just don’t think we can limit art in any way, with the risk that some of it will be not so great and controversial. I don’ really believe rape was the theme of the painting, not of this one. It was clearly in the images on the vases where the violence against the woman was clearly depicted to inflame the viewer about the sacrilege committed in the temple. Violence against women i think is easy to depict and because it repels the viewer also an easy instrument of provocation and shock… I wonder how often artists used it as just that and never considered the impact it would have on female viewers. It’s a man’s world still in some respects…
Which makes me feel that the painting is a bit of a man’s fantasy… more than anything in the curvature and exposed position of her body, it is almost as if he is offering herself up. The natural position would be for her tu be turned from him, being dragged away, trying to clutch the statue. Front facing it creates a very different impression which i am getting the feeling the painter was aware of. If i look away from her and look at Ajax there is enough menace there, at least in the balled fist and the dark expression on his face to suggest violence. But to me it is more the suggestion of a distinctively male fantasy.And i am sure many painters lived out their fantasies in their art 😉 Nothing wrong about that. So in this case i am more included to think the legend was more an opportunity of describing his own images rather than depicting the essence of the violence that comes with rape. Because of the reasons people have mentioned before, that rape is about control and power not sensuality and this painting is definitely sensual 🙂
Thanks for these comments. You made a very good point about the position of Cassandra’s body. It’s not a natural pose in which to carry someone! Clearly the painter did it in order to show the front of her. I think that for him it was less about the rape itself than the contrasting forms of the bodies, and the composition. Yet as you say it’s very sensual.
I am interested that an audience would boo a scene in an opera! Was it part of the plot so unavoidable, or were they booing the way it was staged?
oh there is probably more booing in opera these days than in any other type of show, not witnessed any booing anywhere else actually. People i think mostly boo modern stagings they do n’t like, some people would much rather still see stand and deliver shows in mock period costumes and not pay attention to the actual subject. Mind you there are for sure more bad productions in opera than there are in theatre! We are in an ongoing state of conflict 😉
And i agree about the contrasting form of the bodies, it sets each body off against the other very well.
I admit I’m not crazy about modern dress Shakespeare, but I can see good reasons for it. It is odd when the script is full of references to swords and has actual sword fights, as in Hamlet, and the actors are dressed in 20th century clothing. But the magic of great works is that they can be recast again and again, like the Greek myths.
i’m getting used to it, but it has been a learning process 😉 good modern theatre and ballet productions have taught me a lot and lead me to think differently 🙂
Yes, and I’m sure some are so well-performed that you don’t focus on the costumes.
what’s wrong (or rite?)with me? i think this is not repellent: i vote “magnetic” and the impression i get is also not “horrifying.” ah, the patina of time, the artist’s brush, and all the inner voices all of which seem to want to speak ~
Thanks for the comment. I think it’s magnetic too. The original is in the Art Gallery of Ballarat, in Australia. Maybe some day I’ll get to see it “in person.”
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