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Lovis Corinth - Salome (II. version)

by Frauke Maria Petry

The oil painting by Lovis Corinth captures the end of the Salome legend from the Bible: John the Baptist denounces the marriage between Herod Antipas and his sister-in-law Herodias. The woman then wants to have the penitent preacher murdered, but her husband refuses. When Herodias' daughter Salome delighted the guests at Herod's birthday party with a dance, he vows to grant her a wish. Since the girl does not know what to ask for, her mother whispers her own desire in her ear; Salome wishes for John's severed head. Herod cannot refuse the wish for the sake of his honor and has John beheaded. The picture shows how the dancer Salome receives the head of the Baptist.

In the center stands self-confidently with exposed breasts Salome. Wrapped in noble fabrics and adorned with flowers and chains, she bends forward and stares into space with an almost apathetic, calm gaze. A servant kneels before her and supports the bowl with John's severed head on the back of his head. The daughter Herodias opens one eye of the presented head with her outstretched right hand. The princess' posture appears lascivious, while her gaze suggests a certain suppressed disgust. Two other men surround the noble lady, but turn their backs on the viewer. One holds a blood-smeared sword in his hand; two others carry a body - presumably the remains of John's corpse. Behind Salome stands a woman with a fan of peacock feathers. She looks directly at the viewer and thus moves out of the picture. She builds a bridge to the real world. Next to the mediating figure stands another woman who smiles mockingly. It can be assumed that this is Herodias. The artist skillfully arranges all the figures in the first picture plane, allowing interesting overlaps of the heads with the frame. Likewise, three narrative levels are condensed: the murder with the sword, the handing over of the head as the end and the conspiracy of the mother in the background.

The figure of Salome is the most received Christian mythological female figure in the second half of the 19th century. She is THE example of the pictorial type of the 'femme fatale' (from the French for fatal woman). The symbolists obsessively used her to thematize the unpredictability of women and the powerlessness of men. Historically, the popular theme can be assigned to the emancipatory beginnings of the suffragettes, on the one hand. On the other hand, a growing number of prostitutes and syphilis patients were recorded in the cities during these years. Syphilis was still considered incurable at the time and, if left untreated, led to death.

Lovis Corinth also addresses the connection between seduction and death in his painting. The content of the picture is not so much an excerpt from the legend of Salome, but rather a parody of life. It is a provocative and unconventional treatment of the subject. Until then, there had been no version of Salome that so offended the moral sense. In the second version, moreover, the sitters can be identified. The knowledgeable recognize the actors of the time from a scandalous play about Salome by Oskar Wild (1891), which is considered the model for Corinth's second version. It is precisely this fact that makes the difference to the dreamy depictions of the Symbolists.

The Munich Secession rejects Corinth's 'Salome'. The Berliners, on the other hand, are enthusiastic a year later. The audience of the German capital has seen enough of the romantic dreamy version of the dancer. It virtually demands the aggressive presence that distances itself from the original story. Corinth owes his fame to the painting 'Salome'.

Lovis Corinth - Salome (II. version)

Oil on canvas, 1900, 127 x 148 cm, Museum of Fine Arts in Leipzig


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