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.”