Franz von Stuck: Salome (1906); Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus

Opposites attract, so sensuality and disgust fight for precedence in this 1906 painting by Franz Ritter von Stuck. An exotic dancer fills the foreground almost completely. Dressed in just an airy skirt, castanets and jewellery, she tempts us with an erotic pose. In the shadows on her right a troll-like black servant looms up, adding horror and physical contrast. Grinning vulgarly, the creature presents a severed head on a platter. In life, it belonged to a bearded, longhaired man whose fate as a haloed martyr seems connected with the dancer’s triumphant attitude. Both the living and the dead share a glittering, star-studded night for a backdrop. While this may symbolize a saintly hereafter, it also warns against imminent danger: the girl’s glamour seems close but is out of reach, and there is only cold, deep darkness beyond.
The ambiguous scene is inspired by the Gospel story in Mark 6:21-29. When John the Baptist criticized King Herod for illegally marrying Herodias, the divorced wife of his half-brother, the prophet was imprisoned for his efforts. But Herodias was after more serious revenge and pressed her daughter Salome to charm her stepfather with a birthday dance, making him promise to give her anything she wished. Prompted by her bloodthirsty mother, Salome asked for John’s head on a platter. Herod had to comply.
The Salome image has been popular in art for centuries. Originally intended to create empathy with John’s religious righteousness, it gradually developed a life of its own and became an example of men falling victim to vicious women (before you blame this innocent writer, there were also virtuous tricksters like Judith and Esther!). Especially the artistic and philosophical milieu of the fin de siècle produced a large repertoire of fatally tempting women. Von Stuck was fascinated with this paradox and painted the Salome theme three times. She epitomized the inherent female ability believed to ‘innocently’ attract, then pervert the male’s soul.
Born a miller’s son, Franz Stuck became famous as an all-round ‘prince of art’ and was knighted to ‘Ritter von’ the year before painting this terrifying scene. His Munich villa, designed and decorated by himself, is now a museum.
(text: Jos Hanou)


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