May 2014

The crown of Alma-Tadema (review of exhibition in Chiostro del Bramante, Rome)

When hearing the names of Alma-Tadema, Lord Leighton and other cornerstones of british aesthetic movement of late 19th century represented in epochal private exhibition “Alma-Tadema and 19th-century English painters, Perez Simon collection” in Rome, a Tate curator or any commonplace intellectual rolls up the eyes and sighs “but they are so cheesy…”. The esential focus on beauty, volupcious forms, vibrant colours, intricacy of detail seem somehow alien and irrelevant to perception of our minds dipped in dismal apocalyptic worldview.
Still…is it that irrelevant?
I have heard an opinion that Alma-Tadema’s highlighted work “The roses of Heliogabalus” represents social satire on a sadistic tyrant who caused death by suffocation on his admiring “parasites” by pouring on them a rain of a ton of rose petals.
Is it our mind that is leaning to any familiar explanation, known from socialist school history programme, so logical and gross, so gross?
I must insist this interpretation cannot be further from truth. A social satire from Alama-Tadema, of all people? The fact is, in the period of working on this painting the artist was fond of books of another aestheticist, Joris-Karl Huysmans, whom i by chance also am fond of. Social satire or longing for infinite beauty? A tyrant or a saviour who put suffering souls also longing for infinite to ecstatic eutanasia?
Look at the painting closely. Do we see suffering in the dying servants, do we see agony, fear, rude awakening? No, they are sent into the bliss of elisium taken into it by the last memory imprint on their cornea of the ultimate beauty of a ton of rose petals. Only the viking looking redhead male to the right, the most stunning and worked through image of all characters, is trying to look in the eyes of the tyrant with a question.
Look at the face of a tyrant. Historically a very interesting person. The head of self-built cult, androgyn (the topic going through my previous blog entry), the builder of a temple to himself made of volcanic lava. Yes, his face can seem cheeky and he is rising a glass, because he is the only one knowing what can and will happen.
An ancient ritual mass-suicide with goal to reach a higher state like the one of “Heavens Gate” cult followers in 20th century and several others?
“Like a tide-race, the waves of human mediocrity are rising to the heavens and will engulf this refuge, for I am opening the flood-gates myself, against my will. Ah! but my courage fails me and my heart is sick within me! — Lord, take pity on the Christian who doubts, on the unbeliever who would fain believe, on the galley-slave of life who puts out to sea alone, in the night, beneath a firmament no longer lit by the consoling beacon-fires of the ancient hope!”
(A Rebours, final words) ”

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