Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Woman and snake

Ok, so I get a bit obsessed with imagery...
I am very interested in symbols that seem to surface again and again in art and culture, spanning centuries and continents, languages and fashions. The great "re-cycled" archetypes. This is the first of many posts on the relationship between the snake and the woman - one of my pet Internet research subjects.
I've been captured by this classical 19th century sculpture (Woman Bitten by a Snake by Auguste Jean-Baptiste Clésinger) for quite a while. The marble beauty is stunning, so live-like... The uncanny resemblance to life certainly makes for a long lasting impression and adds to the mystique - the pose, the danger, the uncertainty, the stillness, the striking suspension between life and death.
Why isn't there a word that's better than "wow"?
You can't of course overlook the explicit sexuality of the scene - the exposed breasts, arched back, nudity only exaggerated by the cloth wrapped between the woman's thighs. And jewellery. Why has she no clothes but kept her bracelets on? Snake, woman and sexuality certainly make for a handsome trinity.
I dare say that even today there is a sense of an indecent exposure about the whole arrangement - and I don't mean her pose or her nudity alone but... look at the third picture. The one with the museum visitors in the background. The fact that the sculpture is available to the public from every angle, baring all before hundreds, thousands of people every day. That idea strikes me as perverse. Her stone-solid perfection invaded by all the grubby meagre mortals again and again for ever and ever. Ha! That sounds a bit mythical in itself!
Well, I hope I've whetted your interest. My lunch break is sadly up and my destiny calls... Will be back soon with more palatable imagery!
To my best knowledge Woman bitten by a Snake is exhibited by Musée d'Orsay, Paris.

Update! I just came across a poem that makes for a suitable companion to Clésinger's sculpture:

The very dear one was naked, and, knowing my heart,
She had kept on only her sonorous jewelry,
And those rich trappings gave her the victorious air
Of the slaves of the Moors in their happier days.

When, dancing, it throws forth its lively and mocking sound,
This radiant world of metal and stone
Ravishes me with ecstasy, and I love with a frenzy
Those things that blend sound to light.

And so she lay there and let herself be loved,
And looking down from the sofa she smiled complacently
Upon my love, profound and deep as the sea,
That rose toward her as toward a cliff on the shore.

Her eyes fixed on me, like a tamed tiger,
In a vague and dreamy manner she struck various poses,
And candor united with lewdness
Gave a fresh charm to her metamorphoses;

And her arms and her legs, and her thighs and her loins,
As though shining with oil, undulating like a swan,
Passed before my clairvoyant and serene eyes;
And her belly and her breasts, those grapes of my vine,

Thrust themselves forward, more seductive than the Angels of evil,
To trouble the repose into which my soul had settled,
And to drive it from the crystal crag
Upon which, calm and solitary, it had been seated.

I seemed to see, forming a novel picture,
The haunches of Antiope joined to the bust of a beardless boy,
So far did the curve of her waist thrust forward her pelvis.
Her rouge looked superb on the tawny brown of her skin.

-- Because the lamp had resigned itself to die,
The hearth alone illuminated the room,
And each time the fire left forth a flamboyant sigh,
It inundated with blood that amber-colored skin!

Les Bijoux (The Jewels) by Charles Baudelaire
translated by
Cat Nilan


  1. The sexualisation the the depiction of pain (or death, even) is definitely prevalent in this sculpture, I think. It sort of reminds me of Bernini's "Ecstasy of Saint Therese" in that way, as well as many other (especially Renaissance) depictions of martyrs/martyrdom, and I feel like it is something that is brought out much more emphatically in sculpture than other mediums.

  2. Here is a PARTICULARLY explicit one (also Bernini):
    The Ecstasy of Beata Ludovica

  3. when you can't have fun you have it the other way xD

  4. Iiiinteresting... I see what you mean.
    I just wish I could turn back time and include this interpretation in the elementary school essay I once wrote on the "Ecstasy of Saint Therese".
    With the experience of adulthood some things become more... obvious.