Comparative Ekphrasis: Kees van Dongen vs. Gustave Moreau


Kees van Dongen. Mlle Geneviève Vix dans le role de Salomé (1920)


A young woman known as Salome, shown in a green oriental costume, dances with her arms above her head with a green cloth cascading behind her. The severed head of John Baptist is on a platter to the right. Her parents Herod II and Herodias are to the left gazing at the spectacle. The simple style, bold colors and outlines show the Fauvist story. She is the symbolic incarnation of world-old Vice, the goddess of immortal Hysteria.

Gustave Moreau – The Apparition (1876; watercolor)

Moreau was widely celebrated for his ‘Byzantine’ style and flowing, vibrant carnality, most ostensible in his Salome paintings. Indeed, with their polished, flaming palettes, his paintings seem to breathe vestiges of exotic nostalgia into the viewer. His virtuosity is achieved through paradox; it is on the whole visionary, belletristic, and mystical, yet just as easily his poetic value can be waxed on the technique of his physicality, the decorative materialism that prevails in his paintings. Moreau’s use of ornamentation is not by accident:640px-Gustavemoreau

“There are paintings where ornament subsumes the event to become the event, a purely visual, abstract event.”

In his watercolor above, the figure of Salome is emblematic of the ‘femme fatale’, a typical trope of fin-de-siecle decadence. A Symbolist who was enthralled by legends of Orientialist ornamentation, Moreau depicted Salome in the magnificent costumes and surroundings of the Eastern world. Conceived irrespective of any Testament theme he envisaged her as a forceful woman who was wholly cognizant of the entices her sexuality presents. The scene is both extravagant and precise in details, so concentrated that they nearly drip off the canvas in rivulets of lustrous realism. Salome herself is like a living jewel, with her cascade of ochre and cerulean glimmers flowing down to her pointed toe like a diamond cutlet.

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