Lecture 6 Clements 1
School of Arts and Letters, Atkinson Faculty of Liberal and Professional Studies
AK/HUMA 1780 6.0A Stories in Diverse Media
¾ The Discussion Rooms should be up and running tomorrow. Please see the
Protocol posted along with this lecture to begin when the time comes.
¾ I have posted a short excerpt for you in the Readings folder. Please read it
before next Thursday in addition to George Shaw’s play, Pygmalion.
The Femme Fatale Proliferates: Visual Representations of Salome
Today we're going to look at the paintings of two artists from the same time
period as Oscar Wilde, Gustav Moreau and Gustav Klimt. I will discuss Richard
Strauss’s opera Salome next Monday when we examine the movie Fatal Attraction (our
example of a contemporary femme fatale). But first, another contemporary example of the
use of this ancient story with the help of CSI Las Vegas. Funnily enough a few years ago
in the season opener the encyclopedic-minded Gil Grisham mentions the story of Salome
in reference to one of the cases they investigate. A woman hires a hit-man to kill some
person to whom she owes money then asks him to take a picture so that she can verify
that he is dead. Grisham mentions that this is like the story of Salome because Salome
wanted proof that J the B was dead and so asked for his head on a silver platter.
There are a few things about this mention of the Princess that are interesting in
terms of the ideas in the course: first, it shows us that the version of the story to which the
show is referring is actually Wilde's play, and even more likely, Strauss's opera. People
who know anything about the character usually know it from the opera rather than Lecture 6 Clements 2
Wilde's play, which is rarely performed. We know it is this version because Grisham
does not mention the fact that Salome's mother asks for the head on a silver platter, not
her daughter. Secondly, in Grisham's use of the story he emphasizes what is important to
the show. What's the central focus of the show? What's one of the main things at which
we're supposed to marvel? Why is Grisham "heroic"? Because he's a scientist who would
never convict someone without the forensic backing of the evidence. We know that the
notion of science and "truth" are central to the show because of all of the (not so subtle)
comments that the characters make: "the evidence doesn't lie" or "we'll find the truth in
the evidence." We also know that the "truth" is important to the show from those
somewhat long montage sequences in the lab when we watch the experts evaluating or
discovering the importance of the evidence they have so meticulously gathered in little
envelopes and vials with long Q-tips. These sequences are accompanied by nondiegetic
music—some hip tune in the background that is not actually sounding in the lab (it is for
the viewers’ ears only). So not only are we supposed to admire the abilities of these
scientists, but we are also supposed to think they are "cool" for having this particular
career. The snazzy music implies through association that what you thought was a nerdy
job for scientific geeks, is really the trendiest occupation going: Crime Scene
So, for Grisham the story is important because Salome asks for John the Baptist's
head on a platter as proof of his death. Not for her pleasure as we established is the case
in Wilde's text, nor for her mother as the biblical and historical accounts document, but as
proof, as evidence of a victim's death. This only makes sense in the context of the show.
It is all about the evidence for Grisham and the crime lab; it is about the scientific proof Lecture 6 Clements 3
and the "truth" that is gleaned from it. So it is only fitting that Grisham understands
Salome, the character, as an early criminal asking for the proof of her crime.
I've mentioned this because it foregrounds some of the major themes of this
course, the same story can be told in various forms for various reasons and with a variety
of interpretations. Last lecture in our coverage of a few versions of this story we noticed
that different tellers of a tale emphasize diverse aspects of the story. In the Biblical
version, John the Baptist is the central figure because of the purpose behind the gospels—
to spread the word of Jesus and build the foundation for a new religion. Then, in the late
nineteenth century, Wilde and Beardsley focus on the figure of Salomé herself rather than
John the Baptist. Yet, even within these two nineteenth century versions there are striking
differences. Wilde emphasizes the tiny, young and pale princess who asks for the
unthinkable and ends up losing her mind over a severed head. Wilde also concentrates on
and elaborates Herod's incestuous and insistent obsession with his stepdaughter.
Beardsley, on the other hand, accentuates the relationship between Salomé and John. His
representations of these two main characters seem androgynous (as though they contain
the characteristics of both sexes). Salomé and John seem to be "cut from the same cloth,"
so to speak. Indeed, they actually mirror each other in that final painting titled "The
Kiss." Beardsley's assertive princess also dares to stare the perceiver in the face in "The
Stomach Dance" (and she doesn't look too happy either!). These are bold moves because
paintings from the nineteenth century that depict coquettish women (or any women for
that matter) rarely portray the women looking straight out from the canvas. Their eyes
typically look askance (to the side) or downward to demonstrate a presumably submissive Lecture 6 Clements 4
nature. In this context, Beardsley's portrait is not only bold in its stark black and white
representation, but also radical in terms of gender politics.
Gustave Moreau (1826-1898)
Now I'd like to look at two more visual depictions to see if the story and the figure
of the fatal woman are again transformed. One of Wilde's inspirations for writing his
Symbolist play in the first place was the work of Gustav Moreau. As I mentioned last
lecture, this painter created 87 different versions of the figure of Salome. First, a little
background on Gustav Moreau. See Lecture Summary Slide 2.
♦ He was a Symbolist
Just to review, the Symbolists were interested in
♦ Suggestion and evocation instead of direct statement or accurate description.
♦ They attempted to write poetry and create paintings that evoked subjective moods
through the use of symbols.
¾ Wilde, for example, used the moon as a symbol to evoke the atmosphere of a
cold, pale, and eerie night.
♦ They tried to avoid both the description of external reality and the expression of
¾ You may recall that Wilde never settles on a winner in the argument about
religion I mentioned in the last lecture. The play never gives you the answers to
the questions it poses. Moreover, the play is less about an accurate or historical
portrayal of Herod's kingdom and more about creating a stilted and ethereal
atmosphere. Lecture 6 Clements 5
♦ The Symbolists also wanted to bring poetry closer to music, believing that sound had
mysterious affinities with other senses.
Back to Moreau
♦ He was a French painter, one of the leading Symbolist artists.
♦ He is often described as having a feeling for the bizarre.
♦ He developed a style that is highly distinctive in subject and technique.
♦ His preference was for mystically intense images that evoked long-dead civilizations
and mythologies—hence his fascination with the story of Salome.
♦ His paintings usually represented highly sensuous material
♦ In terms of his painting techniques, he would use an encrusted, textured style to create
a jewel-like effect on the canvas.
Picture #1. See Lecture Summary Slide 3.
"Salome Presents the Ring to the Executioner" 1870
♦ Moreau tended to paint small figures in an elaborate, eclectic setting containing a
mixture of precise, linear passages and painterly, s