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Edson Campos’s spectacular new painting, “Opera,” puts a postromantic twist on Eugene Delacroix’s famous Romantic masterpiece, “Death of Sardanapalus” (1827), which is, in turn, inspired by one of Lord Byron’s plays. Delacroix is widely known as the leader of the Romantic movement in art.  Yet his brand of Romanticism never gave way to sentimentality: it was distinct, bold and individualist. The poet Charles Baudelaire captured the painter’s style best when he said: “Delacroix was passionately in love with passion, but coldly determined to express passion as clearly as possible.”

In the “Death of Sardanapalus,” Delacroix depicts the last moments of the Assyrian king Sardanapalus, his harem and his servants, before the inevitable defeat. The color scheme is warm—vibrant reds, yellows, browns and shades of shimmering gold. It captures the tragic energy of the events as well as the exotic setting. The king, however, remains expressionless as he orders the guards to kill his servants, concubines and animals, whom he regards as his rightful property. If he must fall defeated to the enemy, he refuses to leave behind for his enemies any of his belongings. Most shocking—and yet also most moving—is the scene which is entirely absent from Byron’s play: the sacrifice of a beautiful nude woman, perhaps the king’s favorite concubine, who is being stabbed from behind by one of the guards.   The fierce, merciless concentration of her assailant sharply contrasts with her passive, defenseless pose and quiet suffering.  In this Romantic allegory, the women are property and victims. There is  striking beauty in the composition and color scheme of the painting, but sheer brutality in its message.

In Campos’ postromantic pastiche of Delacroix’s painting, the violent central scene of the concubine being stabbed has been removed. Campos still recreates, however, with a stunning likeness, some of the elements of Delacroix’s original. He depicts the king’s unemotional expression, as he supervises the murder of his harem, servants and horses. He also shows a seminude concubine, a helpless victim that has already been murdered. The most compelling scene, which captures movement and emotion, is represented by a horse. We see it rearing its body to escape death, its eyes opened wide with fear.  However, instead of the brutal murder scene of the nude concubine, a beautiful young woman with long, flowing hair, enveloped in a satin red gown, forms the focus of Campos’ rendition of Delacroix’s masterpiece. Her expression still reflects the resignation of Delacroix’s female victims. Yet Campos attenuates the brutal violence of the scene.   Her stance may be passive and resigned, but she’s still very much alive. The transposition of this new representation of femininity—which replaces the central scene of sacrifice and violence of Delacroix’s “Death of Sardanapalus”—endows Campos’s “Opera” with a sense of promise, hope and a languid, almost sensual, spirituality that are glaringly absent from the original. Under Campos’ creative touch, Delacroix’s Romantic nightmare vision turns into a more ambivalent postromantic image that sharply contrasts brutal violence with possible hope and redemption. 

Claudia Moscovici, postromanticism.com

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