From the Horatii to Cleopatra

Here’s an interesting bit of synchronicity … my spiders picked up a piece in the Independent which is about Giotto’s Lamentation of Christ … the incipit, however, is rather more in the purview of this blog:

There is also anachronism in viewing. We can’t help looking at pictures through our own later eyes. We see them in ways their first spectators could never have. They suggest to us things that didn’t exist then. This needn’t be a distraction. If the likeness is precise, it may help us focus the picture more clearly.

Take Jacques-Louis David’s painting, The Oath of the Horatii. It’s a frieze-like, neo-classical composition. It shows an ancient Roman legend. Three brother-heroes, their right arms extended straight out, are swearing self-sacrificial loyalty to their father, who holds up their swords.

But the contemporary US painter Alex Katz saw it this way. The gestures, he said, “are very, very clear, they’re very decisive – clear in what they are supposed to be as gestures… When I saw the David with the three swords I thought of three guys with cigarette lighters and a woman with a cigarette. That’s what it looked like to me.”

We’ve leapt from ancient Rome (where the scene is set) or the late 18th century (when it was painted) to a Hollywood scene in the mid 20th century – three young blades, shooting out their arms to offer some broad a light. This is far from the subject of the picture. But the precision of the visual likeness brings the modern viewer very close to the shape and speed of its three simultaneous lunges.

… which reminded me of this on-set photo from the Claudette Colbert version of Cleopatra (directed by Cecil B. DeMille):

from the John Springer Collection
from the John Springer Collection

… which coincidentally, is celebrating its 75th anniversary this week, coverage of which was also flooding my email box … here’s a representative bit from the Baltimore Sun:

Claudette Colbert is the sauciest Cleopatra since the 1st century B.C. in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1934 production of Cleopatra, a classic from those frisky days before Hollywood got itself all moral and safe.

DeMille, the master of the early-Hollywood epic, spent his career giving the people what they wanted, and what that meant was movies featuring as much titillation as contemporary standards would allow, usually in stories based on history or the Bible. Colbert had scorched the screen twice already in DeMille productions – 1932’s The Sign of the Cross, in which she famously took a nude bath in asses’ milk, and 1934’s Four Frightened People – but neither of those is as much fun as Cleopatra, in which she seduces two continents, gets delivered to Caesar (Warren William) wrapped in a rug and distracts poor Marc Anthony (Henry Wilcoxon) so that he doesn’t know which way is up, much less which way is Rome.

Of course, it’s all delightfully anachronistic; Colbert’s about as Egyptian as George Washington, and the 1930s vernacular doesn’t exactly match the time period. But who cares? Colbert is riveting (in costumes that weighed as much as 60 pounds), DeMille’s mastery of the deliciously overblown is unmatched, and the film’s huge art-deco sets belong in a design museum.

For my part, I’ve always hoped someone would find a copy of the Theda Bara version … photos like this from a 1917 flick definitely spark curiosity (although we admit there seems to be obvious anachronism here as well; whether it’s delightful or not is probably a matter of personal taste):

Wikimedia Commons Photo
Wikimedia Commons Photo

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