08 May 2008

An Amsterdam All-Zenobia Day

Attention Dutch-speaking readers of this blog!

(the linguistically-challenged should scroll down a paragraph or two for other English fare)

An all-Zenobia Day is coming to Amsterdam. And what a gloriously indulgent day that will be. The title says it all -- Queen Zenobia between East and West: Zenobia of Palmyra in Arab and European Literature, Archaeology, Music and the Visual Arts from Antiquity to Now. Whew, the Netherlands Classical Association and Ex Oriente Lux are not missing much. I advise anyone in or near Amsterdam to get an invitation by hook or by crook (Zenobia2405@yahoo.com) and then hurry over to the Academic Cultural Centre on Saturday 24th May.

We've already touched on some of the same subjects -- the lecture entitled "Zenobia to Zenobia: Two Dethroned Queens on Canvas" will surely cover our glorious queen and the Armenian Other Zenobia, while "Zenobia as Opera Star" must hum along with Johann Adolph Hasse; but there are many more Zenobia operas and I am eager to listen. "Zenobia Lives! The Modern Arab Reception of al-Zabba" will undoubtedly cast the queen as anti-colonial Arab fighter (as in the massive Mansour Rahbani musical play in Dubai , which I also discussed in Zenobia's terrible curved sword). The day also promises many sparklingly new topics that I haven't even started on: from "Zenobia on Coins" to the traditions preserved in Tabari's History of Prophets and Kings and Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. It will be a veritable feast.

The organizers very kindly sent me an invitation (as I happen to be in NL for quite other reasons*) and I plan to be there ... and shall report , in English, after the event.

But, for today, I am struck by the image the learned institutions have chosen to adorn their invitation, Zenobia's Last Look on Palmyra by the unfortunately named Herbert Schmalz (1856-1935). I know we must not make fun of people's names (and as a 'Weingarten', I wouldn't dare) but he's such such a schmalzy** artist, it's not true). Take a better look at the picture (left). Painted in 1888, Zenobia is almost a parody of High Victorian art. As Richard Stoneman describes it in Palmyra and its Empire, the queen
looks down from a high balcony over a fantasy scene of spreading temples, porticoes, and colonnades. Noble melancholy suffuses her brow as the sun goes down behind the wheeling desert birds. The picture, overblown as it is, might easily be a stage set for Cecil B. DeMille.
Actually it is one of Schmalz's better efforts. He painted a host of subjects from classical and biblical history, choosing episodes which offered opportunities for elaborate and exotic architectural settings.

And nudity.

At least Zenobia is dressed. There was little Schmalz liked better than to get his models to take off their clothes. All in the name of art, of course.

And piety.

A Great Moral Lesson

This painting from 1888 looks like a cinematic vision of the blood-thirsty crowds in the Coliseum, with a group of nude young women, all pretty, all tied up, all in pseudo-classical poses, waiting for the lions to maul and devour them.

Their various poses obviously have been chosen to show their bodies to maximum effect. For Victorian lovers of bondage, their bodies in restraint must have been a real thrill. A little torture and suffering go a long way to expose virtue and bare flesh.

But these Victorian viewers were still piously and justifiably able to deplore the savagery of the Romans in making martyrs of these adorable, snowy white Christians. The painting offered a Great Moral Lesson about Christian Sacrifice. To make sure no one missed the point—and to free it from any hint of sexual titillation—it was titled: Faithful Unto Death: "Christianes ad Leones!"

Only a sourpuss could fail to be uplifted.

Schmalz's paintings frequently involved the tying-up of nubile women and a lot of execution and death by various means -- and one might expect that his works would have raised questions of taste. Yet it's hard to know how to read a critic, writing in the Strand, when he describes how Schmaltz had used his 15-year old model for Faithful Unto Death:
No one can fail [in looking at the painting] to notice how the bonds which bind the girl to the post seem to cut into the soft flesh of her arms. This was realised absolutely by the model, for Mr Schmalz had a post erected in his studio and bound the girl to it exactly as represented. Within the limited area of the panel it will be noticed how the whole spirit of the large picture has been retained, even the mark in the foreground of the chariot-wheel, which has thrown to one side the thigh and the shin-bone of some long dead-and-gone martyr who had perished for the sake of her faith.
The detail was admirable. And, come on guys, a bit of high kitsch never did anyone any harm.

Keep it in the family

I 'm not sure if this 15-year girl was his favourite model and mistress, Dorothy Dene (whose real name was Ada Alice Pullen), who also modelled for Frederic Leighton, a close friend and mentor. Here she is (left, posing as a demure Iphigenea, though the flowers don't quite hide the carelessly exposed breast). Dorothy was widely admired for her "'splendid growth and form such as the ancient Greek never saw." But ties do not always bind (or not tightly enough) -- a year after painting Faithful Unto Death, Schmalz married Dorothy's sister, Edith Pullen.

Sensation! The Nude in High Art

The credit -- if that's the word I want -- for bringing nudity into English art belongs to the aesthetic movement of Leighton, Watts, Poynter, Albert Joseph Moore and Burne-Jones. They ushered the nude back onto the walls of the Royal Academy, but decently draped, and with a suitable classical title. The naked young maidens, shackled to a rock or draped over the oars of a ship or riding horses or just standing there with a tumescent serpent wrapped around their bodies were Andromeda, the Sirens, Godiva and Harmonia. One recognizes the high moral narratives combined with exposed breasts.

The nude evokes a classical era, a remote past without pubic hair or a hint of cleft. Venus and other classical allusions were allowed; but a naked lady was not, as Alma-Tadema found out when he exhibited a nude female figure, a girl with no waist and rather thick ankles, and called it "A Sculptor's Model". Alma-Tadema was severely rapped over the knuckles by the Bishop of Carlisle; thereafter he was careful to avoid nudes altogether.

Schmalz had better luck. His sculptor's model passed muster (albeit a little later). In 1900 he showed this painting at his biggest one-man show at a Bond Street gallery. It is called the Dream of Fair Women.

Perfume and underwear advertisers today have nothing on the kinky Victorians.

I can only imagine that it is Schmalz himself, the sculptor, at her feet.

Words fail me.

But they didn't fail Oscar Wilde, who knew Schmalz slightly.

Schmalz was just leaving one of Lady Wilde's salon gatherings when Oscar stopped him.

Wilde: "Ah, Schmalz! leaving Mamma so soon?"

Schmalz: "Yes, I have a picture I must get on with."

Wilde: "Might I ask, what subject?"

Schmalz: "A Viking picture."

Wilde: "But my dear Schmalz, why so far back? You know, where archaeology begins, art ceases.

* I'll be helping to install Gerti Bierenbroodspot's new exhibition of paintings and sculpture, Atlantis Rising, at the Museum van der Togt in Amstelveen; opening 25 May. A catalogue, written by yours truly, is available.

Schmalzy is another New York word of Yiddish origin, meaning maudlin, sentimental, slushy or mushy effusiveness. Above all, if applied to a painter it means really kitschy. In 1918 Schmalz changed his name to Carmichael – after his maternal grandfather, the marine painter John Wilson Carmichael. But that was too late to stop people like me from making bad jokes.


  1. Anonymous13/5/08 12:22

    I have often had problems sending in a comment at Blogger, and so I am afraid to go back and re-read your text about those Roman women lion picnic. I read you are an archaeologist, and so I wondered why you would take such an interest in poor Schmalz. I thought that lots of Victorian art was that way.

  2. Thanks for writing, espliego.

    Yes, I'm an archaeologist but I also have an abiding interest in art -- right up to modernism (post-modernism I'm not so sure about :-).

    Anyway, I hope you don't agree with another of Oscar Wilde's comments, that 'archaeology is merely the science of making excuses for bad art.'

    I'm not clear which text you mean about Roman women lion picnic. Can you explain?

  3. How cool is this? I'm looking for mention of the colors of clothes that Palmyrene soldiers may have had, and here's a whole blog on Zenobia. The internet is truly a fearsome thing.

    I like your comment on Schmalz. My wife yelled at me the other day when we walked into a gallery at the Philadelphia art museum that seemed to be nothing but 19th century paintings of nude women. "Lookit all the boobs!"


  4. Chuckle, your wife is right, Eric.

    Though it may have been hunting gear, and not his military get-up, have you seen the clothes worn by Odenathus that I reproduced in Zenobia: the musical and Conquest's Law?

  5. Yes I did, that's neat stuff.

    Although why is it identified as Odenathus? I mean, I see a guy on a Pegasus and I think Bellerophon, Like the Divisional patch from the British Paratroopers in WWII:


    It looks pretty much like that mosaic except for the animals. Is there significance to the snake and the birds?


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