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Transcript of 'The Death of Oedipus' podcast
Right Ladies and Gentlemen, I think I'll make a start.
For those of you that don't know me, my name is Alex Kidson, I'm curator of British Paintings here at the Walker.
I'm going to talk about 'The Death of Oedipus' by Henry Fuseli. 'The Death of Oedipus' is a traditional title for this painting. It's not the only title it's had in its time. Obviously Oedipus isn't actually dead yet in this painting, he's still alive. The more accurate title of it is 'Oedipus, with his daughters, receives the summons of his death'.
He's receiving portents that he's about to die. Portents which he's already explained and his daughters are aware of what's going on. It's an episode from a play by Sophocles and when Fuseli exhibited this painting at the Royal Academy in 1784 the word 'Sophocles' also appeared in the title after a dash 'Oedipus with his daughters receives the summons of his death - Sophocles'. So that readers of the catalogue would understand that Fuseli was illustrating a play by Sophocles.
Sophocles at that time was not at all as well-known a dramatist as he is now. The early Greek dramatists were quite a recondite taste - they were just becoming fashionable. English translations had existed but a new one was in preparation when Fuseli made this painting by a man who'd just published translations by the other great Greek tragedians Aeschylus and Euripedes.
The Sophocles play that this painting comes from is 'Oedipus at Colonus' which is the second of three so-called Theban plays. Plays about the history, mythology of the Kingdom of Thebes, of which Oedipus was the King. Oedipus actually dies at the end of the second play and the third play 'Antigone' is about his eldest daughter, who is this figure on the left here.
In the first play, Oedipus is a young man, he is still King of Thebes. He is told in the first play that Thebes is under a curse until the person is discovered who killed the previous King of Thebes, Laius. And of course it transpires that Oedipus killed his own father and in a separate installment, married his own mother. Though, of course, he wasn't aware that he was doing so at the time.
Distraught at realising that he is the murderer of his own father and had married his mother, Oedipus blinded himself. You can see in the painting here he is represented as blind. That's quite an important element of the scene. It's because he's blind that he can't see the portents of his death, but he can hear them. You can see this dramatic gesture. It's like kind of silence and listening for the portents which is a low roll of thunder.
That's what he's listening to there.
At the end of the first Theban play, Oedipus is banished from his own kingdom and goes to live in exile and the second play he's in exile at this place Colonus while his sons dispute the kingdom of Thebes.
This is the culmination of the second play. Oedipus has been in a position to adjudicate between his two sons as to which one should succeed him at Thebes. He has cursed them, he's refused to adjudicate in favour of one over the other. The curse is in effect going on over Thebes, a bitter time is being endured by this kindgom. He's not able to bring them to an end in any way he can.
He's fated. He knows that in his banishment the gods will summon him to his doom by a roll of thunder and a flash of lightning. This is the moment in the play. A very heightened moment of drama in the Greek sense of tragedy.
I ought to say that the painting, as you can if you look at it closely, is not in a very good condition. The lightning flash is much more visible in a print of the painting that was made shortly after it was completed. It was published in 1785, the following year after the work's exhibition. I'll let you look at that. I'll hand the photocopy of the print round. Also, on the back there, is a very dismal and gloomy photocopy of the companion picture to this one, also depicting a scene from 'Oedipus in Colonus'. An earlier episode from the play when Oedipus is cursing his son Polynices and the two daughters are again present.
That painting is currently in the National Gallery of Art in Washington. It was quite recently rediscovered. For many years it was completely lost sight of. The great Fuseli scholar who did more than anyone else to bring Fuseli into the modern era and study his work, a German scholar called Gert Schiff, did not know this painting at all. It's emerged since he published his great book on Fuseli.
It's not clear whether Fuseli conceived these two pictures together or whether the success of the one led him to work on the second one subsequently. They were exhibited at the Royal Academy as much as two years apart. This one in 1784 and the 'Oedipus cursing Polynices' only in 1786.
It's possible that this painting has been slightly cut down. If you look at the print you'll see that it's slightly broader in relation to its height than the picture is now. If you look at the print there's more space on the left and on the right. Here, this foot is very close to the edge of the picture but it seems that it wasn't always like that. There was a greater amount of room.
That re-inforces the idea that this painting has physically not been well looked-after. If you look at the surface you can see that the paint is very worn. Here, this very pronounced canvas distortion which is caused by re-lining and re-lining a picture often results in a loss of the top layers of paint. That may be what's happened here. The paint is very flattened into the canvas and there's very little impasto anywhere.
That may not be altogether a bad thing in Fuseli's case because one thinks of Fuseli as this painter of the supernatural and the sublime and the kind of ghostly quality that these figures have now may actually be rather appropriate to the Fuseli image. It may be that Fuseli never really put much paint on this picture in the first place.
I'll tell you a little bit about Fuseli himself in a minute, but I just want to think about this image as a late 18th century history painting. It's really out of place where it is in this gallery, I have to say. It's by far the earliest painting in this room, 1784. The Benjamin West painting next to it is 1806, probably the next earliest. It really belongs in our 18th century gallery and it's only because there's no room for it there that it has to hang here.
In fact, it doesn't always hang at all. Despite the fact that it's an extremely striking image and redolent of its time and redolent of the moment when the neo-classical movement is becoming the romantic movement, it hasn't been a very popular picture with certain curators and it's been quite a struggle to have it on display some of the time and really it's condition is part of that package. It's not beautiful to look at. It's not easy for the gallery-goer. It's not eye-salve at all.
It's a kind of sublime history painting of the kind that was very, very popular and very highly valued in academic theory in the late 18th century. Alongside it 'The Death of Nelson' is also a history painting of the period and they make a nice contrast I think. Not much link between them. Obviously a real historical scene in the West and a mythological scene in Fuseli. A very kind of chaotic but polite at the same time scene involving many, many figures, but not very interestingly combined. Here, only three figures, and a much more focal, iconic image.
The figures are combined in a very elaborate way. That sense of composition, the importance of the design, is a very important feature of this painting. It's the central expressive element of it. The positioning of the figures within the picture space, the combination of the figures. One can see immediately that Fuseli has wanted to create this very solid triangular shape of the three figures. Almost artificially. Also there's this large triangle occupied by the three figures and the smaller triangle occupied by his head, this sort of wisp of hair rising, playing an incredibly important part in the composition of the picture. The two hands which are a mirror in reduction of the whole composition.
A very elaborately designed picture, but rather remote from us because the expressions on the faces that are visible seem artifically stagy and dramatically stagy and not realistic. One doesn't feel that any of these figures was drawn from the life in the way that one kind look at the figures in West's painting and think 'Oh yes, that fellow came to the studio and sat for his portrait'. One feels close to that picture and not just because it's a modern historical event.
One doesn't really feel close to this one. That's partly the intention of the artist. It's not a picture that one wants to get close to and feel familiar with. One wants to stand back and look on with awe and amazement. The face of Oedipus recalls expression books, conventional depiction of horror might well look something very much like the depiction of Oedipus' face there.
It's noticeable that the figure of Ismene, the younger daughter, there's no expression. It's refused if you like. The opportunity to depict Ismene frightened or sad or whatever emotion she felt at the moment of her father's impending death. Fuseli passes that opportunity for the depiction of sadness up. All you see is a face in profile with eyes closed.
As for Antigone you only see the back of her head. This depiction of the closest figure to you, showing it from the back is really a kind of bold device. It's not something that you would expect a protagonist of one of the supreme tragic moments in Greek drama, you wouldn't expect to be looking at her bottom, which is what is being thrust into your face.
So, Fuseli is not terribly interested in a realistic depiction of expression. Nor is he interested in a very realistic colour. The colour is very restrained and subdued. Just blacks, white, greys and creams. With just little accents and one can imagine the lightning flash coming from the top right hand corner would have been a silvery white accent. These areas of light blue and deep dark red. It's very hard to tell how much of the colour has been lost but I think it's fair to say in comparison with other Fuseli pictures that this was never going to be a light bright picture. It was always going to be this picture of chiaroscuro. Of blacks, whites and greys. A very elaborate fall of light instead. That takes the place if you like of the excitement, the interest of bright colour.
Instead you've got this very strong shadow falling across Antigone's back. The shadow across Ismene's face. Wherever you look there are complex shadows and that all adds to the gloom and sublimity of the picture. The great classical author on the sublime, Longinus, in his book 'On the sublime', mentioned the passage in Sophocles which this painting illustrates as a very classic example of an excellent instance of sublimity in literature.
Fuseli would have undoubtedly known that. He was a very learned artist. He read Greek in the original. He was a scholar. He would have known that Longinus took that passage as a classic instance of sublimity and to make a sublime painting was very much at the heart of what Fuseli wanted to do in this picture. A preliminary drawing for this painting which has also only just recently, in the last few decades, surfaced and was unknown to many Fuseli scholars actually has a little scroll in the bottom corner of it with the three lines from Sophocles written on the scroll in Greek by Fuseli himself.
I'll read you the translation. It thundered from the netherworld. The maids shivered and crouching at their father's knees, wept, beat their breasts and uttered a long wail'. Well, that's sort of what they're doing, but those lines are actually said in the play by a messenger who has gone to another character altogether. This action doesn't actually happen in the play. You couldn't go to a performance by Sophocles of 'Oedipus in Colonus' and see this happen. You would only see a messenger come onto the stage dressed in a white robe, telling the audience, 'That's what happened, folks'.
I think that's a deliberate part of Fuseli's intention. He's not just illustrating a moment in a piece of literature. It's not a straightforward illustration because you couldn't go to the theatre and see this. It's a reported action, which means that Fuseli himself has to imagine what the messenger said. Several artists in Fuseli's circle were very keen on this extra level of separation between the view of the picture and the literary source.
You get quite a lot of paintings in the late 18th century in Britain where the artist is very conscious of the need not to be seen simply to illustrate the literary source. To be doing more, to be actively and creatively involving themselves in some way. To re-invent the literary source and put themselves in it.
An artist I've worked on a lot, George Romney, who did a massive painting of Shakespeare's 'The Tempest' almost at the same time as Fuseli did this painting (and the two men knew each other very well and imitated each other's work a great deal), when he came to paint the action of the first act of 'The Tempest', combined different episodes from the first act. A ship wreck, a magician casting his spells, he put them all on the same canvas and that was the whole action of act one of 'The Tempest'.
It could never have happened in the theatre.
This is a very sublime, uncomfortable picture. Very typical of Fuseli. I'd better say a little bit about him. Just to say that he had to leave Switzerland as a young man because he wrote a very critical piece about a tyrannical magistrate. He's a great lover of freedom and equality. Very politically radical for his time in the 1780s. That was what made him a great friend of the Liverpool anti-slavery campaigner William Roscoe. The two men were bosom friends and Roscoe bought this picture from Fuseli. One of about fifteen paintings that Roscoe ended up buying from Fuseli. This I think with 'Oedipus cursing Polynices' were the first two that Roscoe got from Fuseli.
In the Walker collection there are two more, smaller pictures by Fuseli that Roscoe also bought. They are not on display unfortunately. Much smaller pictures. One thing about this is this is Fuseli working on the largest scale. It's perhaps worth noting how much bigger this is, it's a silly and simple thing to say if you like, but the figures here are so much larger, more sculptural and grand than the figures in West's painting. Of course, the bigger the figure in the painting, that actually makes the figure harder to paint.
You have to think more about anatomy, you can't get away with quite so much. The bigger you paint the more technically able you have to be. There's a case that Fuseli's anatomy is not that great in this picture. He's sort of sidestepped the issue of not being a very academic figure painter by making his figures deliberately manneristic, making them subservient to the overall design of the painting with this very heavy triangle that we've seen.
Fuseli, when he was thrown out of Zurich as a young man, he came to England. At the time he was chiefly interested in a writing career and he was on the point of publishing a translation of Winckelmann's essay on Greek painting and sculptures, a very seminal, new piece of art-historical writing about classical art. He came to England because England had the image on the continent of being the cradle of freedom, the cradle of human liberty where there was a working parliamentary system. It was into English that Fuseli translated Winckelmann's piece.
He could have gone to France or Italy where he would have been equally at home probably but he chose to come to England. He immediately met advanced intellectual circles. Sir Joshua Reynolds met him and obviously Fuseli was an amateur draughtsman at that point as well as a writer and Reynolds looked at his drawings and advised him to become a painter.
Fuseli took that advice and went to Rome for eight years and studied the remains of antiquity and Michelangelo in particular. There's a very Michelangelo-esque feel about the treatment of these figures. When he went to Italy and he stayed there for a long time, much longer than most British artists spent in Rome, he was there 1770-8 he was at the centre of a circle of young European artists, not all English ones, he had Danish and Swedish friends in his circle just as much as English ones.
He returned to Britain via Switzerland and spent the rest of his life in England. He didn't travel back to Switzerland ever again. He made his career in London and that meant assimilating his art to the expectations of the British art-loving public. Because Fuseli had this very theoretical grasp of what he wanted his art to be, he found it difficult to become absorbed into the British art world. In some ways he adopted very easily some of the philosophical ideas that were current in London about painting and the ideas on the sublime and so forth.
In other ways, he was a hard-case. He didn't soften his principles to make himself more easily accepted. He was always rather a kind of walking genius somehow. He advertised himself as not one of the art pack. Standing slightly on one side. He relied very much on a few friends such as Roscoe who appreciated and understood his work to get on.
Gradually he became more and more assimilated simply by virtue of his longevity. He lived until 1825. In the 19th century he became a very senior member of the Royal Academy and the artistic establishment but this painting dates from not long after he got back from London in the early 1780s and he was, if you like, still this kind of foriegn, exotic figure who painted in this very manneristic way.
That's almost as much as I want to say about the painting, but I've got a more private interpretation of it too. I think Fuseli was a very multi-layered figure who would have a public message and a private message in the works at the same time.
One of the things about the Oedipus myth today is that the way it describes deep parts of the human psyche to do with killing one's father and loving one's mother and the subconscious impulses that are within people, that have subsequently drawn out by people like Freud. Fuseli seems on the cusp of addressing that sort of issue in this picture. One can't help thinking that the viewer of this picture when it was first painted would be someone who would associate Oedipus with this kind of sexual tragedy, this tragedy of incest and patricide, and would see in the picture the potential of messages of that sort. Messages of sexual desire, if you like, very difficult family relationships.
There's something in the relation of the two daughters to the father which is a kind of mirror image of that here. It's a well-known fact that Fuseli was very attracted to long complicated female hair, tresses. The woman that he married a few years after he painted this picture had very luxurious curly hair which he drew obsessively throughout his marriage to her. She was described as being quite unsuitable for him in every other respect but she had this fantastic erotic charge for him.
It's noticeable that the hair of these two daughters, although it's kind of worn away in the paint now, is a very striking image in the painting. He's given licence to his erotic dreaming in the way that he's painted these locks of hair and particularly Ismene's locks falling into the picture. There is some sort of erotic subtext in this picture going on which you can refuse to pick up if you want to but if you are of the audience of this painting in the 1780s for whom Oedipus is this figure of tragedy because of his distorted and dysfunctional family relationships there's something in that to pick up if you want to.