A Horse’s Impossible Head
T.J. Clark on Delacroix
It must have been some time in 1966 that I bought a French travel poster of a detail from Delacroix’s Lion Hunt (1855) – the lion triumphant for a moment, claws ripping a fallen rider’s flesh, and a horse with its back broken, blood welling from one nostril. A year or so later I cut off the poster’s caption – I think it said simply ‘Bordeaux’, which is where the painting still lives – and had the image mounted on board. It has picked up one or two scuffs and blemishes over the decades, but its colour is as accurate as ever (the SNCF’s printers worked miracles) and the image has kept me company for half a century. It is on the wall behind me as I write.
Lion Hunt was already a talisman of mine at the time I came across the poster. I had first seen the painting in 1963, item 466 in the great Delacroix show held that summer at the Louvre. Over the years it twisted together in my mind with the very different image of human and superhuman conflict Delacroix painted on the wall at Saint-Sulpice, Jacob Wrestling with the Angel. I didn’t really understand the awkward entranced immobility of the two main figures in the mural, the giant oak trees echoing (parodying) the wrestlers’ embrace – I hadn’t steeped myself in the mysteries of the episode in Genesis, as I now realise Delacroix had. But at least I could see that in Jacob and Lion Hunt I was being shown what violence was, the full range of its beauty and monstrosity, and how deeply human beings can be in love with both. It was a message for the times.
That Delacroix himself was in love with the subject – dangerously, scandalously – is part of the story. ‘My painting is a turpitude,’ he said to a young admirer. There is always a thin line, that is, between showing violence and ‘aestheticising’ it, and it is never certain what the effect of either will be. But again, what kept me looking and thinking in front of Delacroix at his best was (and remains) the mobility – the strangeness and humanity – of his treatment of the theme. ‘The sensation of the terrible,’ he wrote in his journal in 1857, ‘and, even more, that of the horrible, is not to be borne for very long … The terrible in art is a natural gift like that of grace … Shakespeare alone could make spirits talk.’ So enter alongside Lion Hunt and Jacob Delacroix’s Death of Ophelia, the version of 1838, now in Munich. Violence here is darkness and disintegration. Few pictures have tried so hard, at the risk of utter naivety, to make the loneliness of death palpable. I think of Baudelaire in ‘Les Phares’:
Delacroix, lac de sang, hanté des mauvais anges,
Ombragé par un bois de sapins toujours vert,
Où, sous un ciel chagrin, des fanfares étranges
Delacroix, lake of blood, haunted by fallen angels
Where a wood of dark evergreens casts its shade,
And, under a lowering sky, strange bugle calls
Ophelia’s ‘lac’, by contrast, is bloodless, sour greens and greys overwhelming everything. Her body, pushed to one side of the painting and somehow heartbreakingly small, is already a ghost. Even her garlands are monochrome. This too – this de-aestheticising of a Shakespeare set piece, this draining away of sensuous detail – was a note Delacroix could strike.
Lion Hunt, however, is the painting Delacroix himself seems to have meant to stand for the nature of violence as he understood it generally, and the proximity of that violence to painting. It is a giant: eight and a half feet high when first painted, and almost twelve feet across, as compared to Ophelia’s 15 by 18 inches. The picture was Delacroix’s response to a state commission, money given to help him make a centrepiece for the walls he had been allotted in an upcoming Exposition Universelle. Work on the painting began in July 1854, and was still underway eight months later, with only days left till the Exposition opened. But Lion Hunt did arrive, and in scale and substance it more than answered back to the great scenes from history and the classics – Dante and Virgil Crossing the Styx, Scenes from the Massacres at Chios, Dante’s Justice of Trajan, Euripides’ Medea, Byron’s Marino Faliero – that Delacroix had assembled to represent his career. In particular, Lion Hunt was even bigger (the same height, but a foot or so wider) than Liberty Guiding the People, Delacroix’s painting of the overthrow of the Bourbon monarchy in 1830. Liberty was a canvas that had turned out to be too ‘difficult’ for public exhibition up till then. Twice in the aftermath of revolution – after only a few months on show in the Salon of 1831, and again in 1849 after a few weeks at the Musée du Luxembourg – it had been taken off the walls by the authorities. It connected too vividly with struggle going on in the streets. In 1855 Delacroix used his connections to the emperor to have the picture released to take part, at last, in the story of the century.
Liberty and Lion Hunt are a mighty pair. And Lion Hunt too has a chequered history. What we have left of the scene is no more than a fragment: the entire top edge of the canvas, a good three feet, was lost to fire in 1870. The original look of the whole is preserved, or at least suggested, in a cabinet picture Delacroix did for sale in 1856, where the 12 feet have been shrunk to 29 inches. I say ‘suggested’ because so much of the effect of Lion Hunt is inseparable from its massive size, and the way the viewer is dwarfed and abutted by forms crowding close in the foreground, each struggling to get off the ground. I doubt, for instance, that the hunt’s landscape surroundings, which in the cabinet picture do partly offset the congestion, did much, in the original, to put things in perspective. Putting things in perspective is very much not what Delacroix, as a painter, is interested in. Perspective is detachment. And detachment is not an attitude or stance that Delacroix – however much in theory or manners he may have pretended to it – ever came close to. Proximity and entanglement are his subjects.
The loss of the top three feet of Lion Hunt is obviously a sadness. But the fragment we have remains a marvel, and its packed, airless, claustrophobic quality only concentrates what seems to have been always the painting’s distinctive look: its wild forcing of everything towards us, toppling into our space; its filling of every inch with matter; matter in agony, matter at breaking point; looming, oppressive, blood-soaked, snorting and screaming.
The bloodbath offended most art critics in 1855, even those with sympathy for Delacroix’s earlier work. Maxime Du Camp in his Beaux-Arts à l’Exposition universelle is representative. ‘This painting defies criticism,’ he writes:
It is a vast puzzle picture in colour [his word is ‘logogriph’] whose solution is nowhere to be found. It is a strange pell-mell of horses fallen in pieces, horsemen attacking heraldic lions with daggers, deformed date merchants creeping about on their knees … [It was once rightly said] of M. Delacroix that he was not so much the head of a school as the leader of an uprising.
Delacroix had his defenders in 1855, Baudelaire leading the counter-charge, but it is worth remembering that even this late in his career, three decades after the bataille romantique of the 1820s, his new work was regularly greeted in such fashion. It mattered in 1855 that the other essentially new item on show – the painting that had been out of sight since 1831 – was Liberty Guiding the People. ‘Leader of an uprising’ indeed. And it was Delacroix himself who worked to have the pictures hung side by side.
I turn to the poster pinned on my wall – what it shows is the lion exultant towards the left (Du Camp’s ‘heraldic’ is clever), the fallen horse, the bleeding rider, the red and gold clothes of the man with the scimitar – and begin to explain, to myself as much as anyone else, what has held me through fifty years. The explanation will turn, I suspect, on the deep appeal of violence in life and art, and the place of aggression in any realistic account of human purposes. Which leads to the question of art’s appeal – of painting’s alliance with power and terror. I remember Hazlitt on Coriolanus:
The language of poetry naturally falls in with the language of power … It aims at effect, it exists by contrast. It admits of no medium. It is everything by excess. It rises above the ordinary standard of sufferings and crimes. It presents a dazzling appearance … Its front is gilt and blood-stained … It has its altars and its victims, sacrifices, human sacrifices. Kings, priests, nobles, are its train-bearers, tyrants and slaves its executioners. – ‘Carnage is its daughter’ … This is the logic of the imaginations and the passions; which seek to aggrandise what excites admiration and to heap contempt on misery, to raise power into tyranny, and to make tyranny absolute.
It’s hard to go on from this. Not knowing what holds me in Lion Hunt – not wanting to face Hazlitt’s challenge, perhaps – has been part of its spell. And critics were right in 1855 that the essence of Lion Hunt was a kind of solid, almost stifling entanglement, a heavy interminable all-overness. (Later French painters seem mostly to have thought that the way to equality and evenness in a picture, which they took as a value just as much as Delacroix had, was via lightness and elusiveness of touch. But for Delacroix unity regularly went along with claustrophobia. His Death of Sardanapalus is the largest, most over-stuffed interior ever painted.) Pointing out separate figures and features in the Lion Hunt mêlée is dangerous, then. It partly traduces the experience of viewing. Even reducing the picture’s overlaps and collisions to ‘ambiguities’ offers false comfort. Ambiguities do not bleed.
Take the horse’s head. It is first and foremost a picture of a creature looking death in the face; and if one goes on to think about it, the face of death – the face the horse seems to fix with its desperate glare – is most likely that of the fallen rider, the man in the turban, his fingers still clutching the horse’s mane. The blood in the horse’s nose is beautiful and disgusting, bubbling out of the nostril with a thick viscosity. It must have been painted with the same pigment, at the same moment, as the wild red of the horseman’s turban, which itself has the look of a bleeding bald skull. Maybe the plume of blue tassels issuing from the red like a tuft of hair is meant to evoke a scalping. The two reds – the turban-scalp and the boiling nostril – insist on the beauty of blood. The choice of supporting colours is a stroke of genius. The dry green and gold bridle of the horse intensifies the red’s oiliness and carnality, so that even the fleck of red in the horse’s eye makes a spectator flinch. The cold gold of the horseman’s tunic, again with its exquisite green filigree, is a kind of deathly counterpoint to the yellows and pinks all round, still fighting for breath: the lion’s thick fur, the horse’s hide, the soft pillow of warmer gold just visible down in the shadows.
I take it that most viewers, coming to terms with the horse in agony, realise before too long that they are looking down at the top of its head, wrenched hopelessly towards them – so that the beginning of the horse’s other eye socket is just visible below, a dark nick on the head’s lower edge. This makes the animal’s stare at its master the more uncanny. But I did say the viewer comes to see the head’s true orientation ‘before too long’. For surely one’s first apprehension of the horse is that its head is seen from the side, facing straightforwardly left. The mark at the head’s lower left corner, then, registers initially (or does for me) as that desperate horse’s mouth. No doubt this first horse’s head gives way to the second, correct interpretation as one goes on looking. But in my experience (over the decades) it will never entirely go away. The head flickers – agonises – between two possible positions. The doubleness enacts the animal’s desperation. So much is done in Delacroix by purely formal means, coldly, with a kind of monstrous painterly calculation, to spell out what pain and fear truly feel like. Look at the geometry – the bare linear structure – of the horse’s head and its two black and white forelegs. It is an ideogram of a body at breaking point.
Now move from the horse to the turbaned rider. Many of the same questions occur. What, for instance, do we think the man in the turban is looking at? Or is he looking at anything? How do we think his blood-red head is attached to his body? Delacroix, painting at speed, has stopped long enough to put in a sequence of marks at the left-hand side of the rider’s head that looks like a strand of dark hair escaping from the turban, and further up an ear, possibly, and even a ghostly profil perdu. The suggestions are enhanced by the red of the turban, with its flurry of fleshly whorls and folds. The head is a tour de force of spatial projection: you look at it in relation to its neighbours and it hurtles towards you, breaking through the picture plane. It is ‘existing in space’ epitomised – but how? At what possible angle? The neck, the more you look at it, seems to go on for ever. Look back at the rider’s far forearm, dripping blood from the lion’s claws. How do we intuit the movement of that arm in space? Are neck and arm roughly parallel?
I stop and draw breath at this point, though there are plenty of ways the painting invites a viewer to go on. If, for instance, one looks not just at the rider’s head and shoulders but at the length of his sprawling body, immediately one begins to wonder if the head rushing forward to meet us is mirrored by a weird endless extension of torso and legs back into deep space. Is that the rider’s red shoe, jabbing against the painting’s left edge? I can’t decide – I suppose it must be. But if it is his shoe, the man is a giant.
And so on. The whole painting is built, as one explores it, on this kind of flickering and doubling of identities. Compare the hold of the lioness on the right-hand horse’s rump. Compare the sword arm of the man with the scimitar, and the placement in space of his blade. Try to intuit the slope of the same man’s stubby forearm in its black cloak. Arrange his body inside his billowing pantaloons. (Du Camp is nasty about this, but his ‘deformed’ and ‘creeping about on his knees’ are not wholly wrong.) The relentlessness of such deformations – their weird consistency, their filling every inch of available space – must have been what made Lion Hunt so hard to finish.
I think we need an overall word to characterise what is being tried for here. Ambiguity, for reasons stated, seems too weak. The term I prefer is borrowed from Theodor Adorno. ‘Non-identity’: this is Delacroix’s theme. That is to say, the patterns and anti-patterns of line and colour he spent his life contriving were not meant, as I see it, simply to blur and evaporate the given identities of things – not meant to turn everything into a film of coloured possibilities – but to insist that identities are real and unavoidable in the world (think of the heraldic lion, rigid with its own outline), but always haunted and contradicted by opposites. The horse’s impossible head or the scalped red turban are not there, of course, in the world we normally assent to and take for reality; but that, says a Delacroix, is a weakness of our assent, our world, not Lion Hunt’s reconstruction of it.
Last year I had the opportunity to see the Bordeaux picture in two different places: once in the Louvre, as part of a large retrospective of Delacroix’s work, and then as the touching finale, beautifully lit, to the Metropolitan Museum’s smaller version of the show. Both times Lion Hunt was hung next to a dazzling oil sketch of the subject, three feet high and four feet wide, which Delacroix had done in spring 1854, in the weeks immediately following the state commission. He seems to have had no doubt about its special qualities – ‘This morning,’ he wrote in his journal, ‘really on fire, I took up the sketch for the Lion Hunt again. Maybe I shall make something of it’ – but it was never shown to the public in his lifetime. When it was (at the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts immediately following Delacroix’s death, and then in every major retrospective) it became a modernist icon. Think of Cézanne encountering it in 1864.
The sketch is a marvel; and clearly it was, for Delacroix, an indispensable step towards the final 12-footer. Colour had to be established from the start as the unnegotiable armature of the scene. Baudelaire in 1855 called the large-scale Lion Hunt ‘an explosion of colour’. The fire of 1870 no doubt dimmed the explosion a little; but in its best passages the intensity – the soft glare as from a set of floodlights, the local clashes of red, blue and white – can still stop you in your tracks. One imagines Delacroix in his studio, working on the fallen horse and rider, or trying to fix the colour relation between the lioness’s yellow and the red and blue-black above and below her, constantly looking across at the sketch on the side wall. I did the same in Paris and New York, and much as I admired the sketch, I came away only the more convinced that the massive Lion Hunt was Delacroix at the height of his powers. For it was only at such a scale, with pigment put on heavily as well as fast – compare the drifts and translucencies in the sketch – that the virtual, the shifting and the approximate became the non-identical. A world of specifics, that is, but not like any given form before.
This is a judgment on the two paintings’ total effect, and no words will ever nail down the final preference; but it may help, if only to focus and sharpen dissent, to point to particulars. Look at the horse’s head in the sketch. It is, by comparison with the head in the finished painting, unproblematic; maybe, once we’ve grown used to what it became, even a trifle glib. Or look at the turban. Look at the decent proportions – the easy plausibility – of the fallen rider’s body, and the last-gasp grip of his thighs on the horse. When Du Camp sneered at deformities in Lion Hunt – his word for the ‘date merchants’ was contrefaits – he was pointing to something central, pervasive. And the evidence of the sketch confirms that it came, this world of counterfactuals, from deliberate hard work, pushing against the flow of skill.
One title I had in mind for this essay as it took shape was ‘Delacroix’s Drawing’. I wanted to argue that the hold of the Lion Hunt detail on me could not possibly be reduced to a harmony or dissonance of colour, much as I went on relishing both. To think of Delacroix as a ‘colourist’ didn’t seem right: it didn’t touch the look in the horse’s eye. Delacroix was a draughtsman in colour. I would say that any great colourist – a Veronese or a Rubens, for instance, whom Delacroix took as his ultimate masters – is also, necessarily, an inventor of a new kind of drawing. For immediately the colours of objects and atmosphere begin to be looked at and fixed full strength, put side by side in a picture, they inevitably throw back the surfaces they adhere to, the edges they stop at, the orientations they evoke and displace, into a strange new perceptual (conceptual) space. ‘Je vois, par taches,’ Cézanne said later. I see in touches – patches – dabs – stains. I see by means of coloured marks; I see by making them. It is his most Delacroix-esque statement.
Delacroix’s drawing is often peculiar. Even in the grandest of his achievements – in Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, for example – there are invariably moments when the handling of a figure’s anatomy, or the reach of its limbs into space, can strike us as being out of joint. I still cannot feel my way into Jacob’s hold on the angel. Is he exhausted, or going for one last desperate lunge? And my eye swivels right to the herdsman over the hill, naked to the waist, urging Jacob’s flock across the River Jordan. He takes up Jacob’s pose and spreads it out further, more improbably, across the flat. Often in Delacroix’s smaller private pictures things done to the body are truly bewildering. The arc of Ophelia’s torso, say, the line of her breast and upflung arm, the sad angle of her neck, her hold on the sodden flowers … where else in art is nakedness pushed further to the point of disintegration? (Pathos and absurdity are close cousins in Delacroix: look again at the horse in Lion Hunt.)
What is the point of such artlessness? Delacroix was perfectly capable of drawing well – crisply, economically, outlines all looking the way they should – if he thought it needful. In particular, he fell into this sort of notation when what he was seeing was new and intriguing, very probably never to be seen again, so that drawing was primarily a mnemonic. The best of the sketches he did in Morocco and Algiers in 1832 are triumphs of observation. They impress us; but Delacroix himself could later be astonishingly harsh in his judgment of them. I quote him writing in 1853, trying to understand his reaction to a landscape background he’d just seen in a Courbet, which struck him as cold and overdone. ‘It’s a piece of marquetry work,’ he writes, and then immediately: ‘I only began to do something passable on my African voyage when I got to the point of forgetting petty details sufficiently, so that I could recall in my paintings only what was striking and poetic; up till then, I was hounded by the love of exactitude, which most people take for truth.’ ‘Frappant et poétique’ are no doubt vague terms. Lion Hunt suggests what they mean in practice.
Revert to the Lion Hunt rider’s neck, and its relation to the gold and green establishing the slope of his shoulders. Notice the raised circlet of gold at the tunic’s opening. And the glimpse of the man’s white undershirt. Move out from the neck and shoulders to the three rings of ruffled white surrounding them – the turban and two rolled sleeves. Enter the lion’s front claws into the array, and notice their grip on the red cord crossing the gold tunic. It is a devilish (‘aestheticising’) repeat of the claws to the right drawing blood. Blood, cord, turban, slipper, belt with glowing embroidery, shadowed red neck …
I have been saying that Delacroix is the artist of identities lost and found; the painter in front of whose most characteristic passages we are never quite sure if what we are presented with is an actual or a virtual appearance – something rising up before us as apparition or fantasy, or, on the contrary, a sudden touch or shock of the real. Hence the primacy of colour. For colour is the aspect of our ordinary experience in which we live with such uncertainty as a matter of course. Isn’t the colour of something an attribute that by its very nature hovers between being a creation of our perceptual apparatus and a property of the thing itself, the most vivid evidence we are given of its substance and materiality? Where is colour, in other words – in the eye or on the object? Is it a thing we can reach out to, even touch? Is it fact or counterfeit? The point seems to be, for a painter of Delacroix’s kind, that these are the questions colour puts to us ordinarily, unavoidably, if we stop for a moment to think.
Sometimes, at least in writing and conversation, Delacroix came down decisively on the side of the materialists. He looks out at the landscape from his window and says he sees no lines there, only ‘taches’. Seeing is patchwork. Colour is stuff. The brush stirring the red of the Lion Hunt rider’s turban is what painting – seeing – truly is. But surely, scanning the rider as a whole, we understand that the case is more complicated. The actual movement of the gold (its softness and coldness, its gentle corrugation) across the rider’s tunic makes it neither quite the colour of the tunic nor that of the light falling on it. Where the gold is, and what it consists of, are questions the paintwork holds in suspense. We are right to revere Delacroix as an artist of agitated surface. The turban and feathers are terrible, yes. Who could blame a young Cézanne for fixing upon them? But Delacroix’s colour is ultimately more entrancing and appalling because it so often escapes from the world of ‘touch’ and enters a world of unplaceable, un-mysterious proximity – the dimension of colour we live in normally. That is where the horse’s head belongs. Look at the grey shimmer on its muzzle.
What kind of drawing is called for if this is your vision of things? Not one that registers as firm and decisive, that hems colour in and gives it a single gradient. Not a drawing that puts an end to paradox, and reasserts the identity of the edge. There have to be endings and demarcations, no doubt (the gap between the white of the rider’s turban and the horse’s head is absolute, sealed by their mutual sight of death), but only as part of an endless occurrence, a continual moving on. Between turban and muzzle – even here, though part of me refuses to see it – flickers the accident, the interface, the beauty of the green and gold bridle.
‘Incorrectness’ of drawing is still too general a description. In Delacroix there seem to me three main types. The first he learned early, maybe especially from Goya’s Caprichos. Let the outlines of figures be jagged and staccato, Goya suggests, and in general let the arbitrariness – the abbreviation – involved in turning three dimensions into two be clear. (The half-indications on the Lion Hunt rider’s neck are a signature of this.) And this leads straight to the kind of drawing I have been mainly celebrating: outlines not just declaring their artifice, but the whole form of a figure – the whole upper body of the fallen rider, his arms, shoulder, neck and head, his hold on the mane, his turban against the black of the horse’s knee – somehow positively laying claim to contrary positions, multiple kinds of extension in space. In Lion Hunt the contraries are distinct: look back at the horse and rider in the oil sketch and you see the immensity of the effort made, as the months went on, to turn a merging of identities into a desperate stand-off. But of course there are passages in Lion Hunt too where the interleaving of men and animals seems interminable: this would be incorrectness type three. The fire of 1870 robbed us of the final form taken by the lioness on the right, the horse, and the lancer on his back (the loss of the horse’s head is crucial), but the form is preserved in the cabinet painting, and does not seem to have changed essentially from the idea in the oil sketch. The man with the scimitar has been moved away, but the interlock of the remaining shapes is even tighter. Horse, lioness and rider build into a double-headed giant.
Most great painters use folds and intersections of forms, especially of drapery, for purposes of exposition, laying out the world before us, turning the contours and edges of things slowly through space, having light modulate across a shifting but comprehensible surface. Rubens is a good example. Delacroix very often does the opposite. He folds and refolds things, filling every inch with colour, until a shape becomes a scintillation. (In Lion Hunt, the glimpse of crumpled green cloak beneath the lion’s midriff is a good example of such horror vacui. Or the billow of black, red and orange in the painting’s bottom left corner.) Later painters fed on this. We have a record of Cézanne standing with a friend in front of Delacroix’s Women of Algiers in Their Apartment and saying: ‘The thing is bourré – stuffed full. The colours interpenetrate, like silks. It’s all sewn together, worked on as a single thing. And that’s why the thing turns [Et c’est pour ça que ça tourne].’ It is wonderful that turning – turbulence – is such a value for Cézanne, and that he learns it from something as superficially hushed and immovable as Women of Algiers.
The poster of Lion Hunt is behind me. I swivel to look at it, hooves and dagger a few inches away, and hear a voice. ‘I see what it is you admire in Delacroix,’ it says, ‘I see why his painting holds you. But isn’t it a hold that you ought to have struggled to release yourself from? Doesn’t this painting enforce – insinuate – a view of life that is deeply malign … pessimistic, salacious, escapist, Orientalist, counter-revolutionary? (In 1855, wasn’t Lion Hunt meant by its maker as antidote to Liberty Guiding the People?) What are you doing, singing the painting’s praises?’
These questions lead back to 1966. It could not avoid being a problem for me then, at a moment when revolution seemed on the agenda, that the artist I judged to have left us the indelible image of revolutionary comradeship – including comradeship of the sexes – was himself a desolate reactionary, shipwrecked in the 19th century by the failure of Napoleon. When I first wrote about Delacroix, in 1969 (a bitter year), I fastened on his desperate attempt, after the revolution of 1848, to make sense of the chaos of the categories he thought – he feared – the new revolution had ushered in. I was interested in the pathetic overtness of his class panic, spilling into the mostly decorous pages of his journal. I tried to set out the panic and its binaries in a map of a few weeks of his life and letters in 1850. And I certainly interpreted the great ceiling painting Delacroix was working on in the same months, Apollo Victorious over the Serpent Python, as a settling of accounts with his previous hopes and enthusiasms – his anti-Liberty, his auto-critique.
I have changed my mind about none of this (though Apollo’s victory over Python looks to me less crushing than it did in 1969). But the deeper question keeps returning. Does someone like me look at Delacroix with always the same unresolved mixture of admiration and distaste? Is Hazlitt’s charge unanswerable? He seems at moments to have conjured Lion Hunt into life:
A lion hunting a flock of sheep or a herd of wild asses is a more poetical object than they; and we even take part with the lordly beast, because our vanity or some other feeling makes us disposed to place ourselves in the situation of the strongest party … The history of mankind is a romance, a mask, a tragedy, constructed upon the principles of poetical justice; it is a noble or royal hunt, in which what is sport to the few is death to the many, and in which the spectators halloo and encourage the strong to set upon the weak … We may depend upon it that what men delight to read in books, they will put in practice in reality.
Which leads to The Death of Sardanapalus. Sardanapalus is a painting on Lion Hunt scale – nearly 13 feet high and a full 16 feet wide – which Delacroix showed first, and almost last, at the Salon of 1827-28. He was 29 years old. It depicts the legendary last king of Assyria putting his various properties to death. In the painting’s gloom, top right, invaders pour through the palace gate. Maybe the idea came from the play by Byron, though Byron flinched from the scene of massacre. Maybe some tawdry boulevard spectacle lay behind it – maybe even a diorama in an arcade. We shall probably never know. The painting provoked uproar when first exhibited, and eventually, after years unsold, went to a banker’s château in the Brie. Delacroix saw it there in 1849, canvas already sagging from the stretcher. In 1855 he made no effort to retrieve the painting for the Exposition: Baudelaire mourned its absence. It was shown to the public just once more in Delacroix’s lifetime, a year or so before his death, at one of the new private galleries just emerging.
Compare Sardanapalus to Lion Hunt. Look at them with Byron’s poem ‘The Giaour’ in mind: Delacroix had done a painting after the poem in 1835, and these were the lines he had seized on:
But Love itself could never pant
For all that Beauty sighs to grant
With half the fervour Hate bestows
Upon the last embrace of foes,
When grappling in the fight they fold
Those arms that ne’er shall lose their hold.
Here are the elements of Delacroix’s view of sex. Sex and violence, Sardanapalus says, are completely and necessarily entangled. Sex is antagonism – though of course it is care, reparation, tenderness, reciprocity too. Passion is danger; love and hate are eternal partners in it. Intensity in human life – and sex is intensity, it is the part of life charged with the maximum pleasure and will – is always the near neighbour of horror, loss of boundaries, bestiality, breaking of taboos. Dominance and submission are indelibly part of it. Sex is aggression and tenderness not just entwined but discovered scandalously as the same thing. A caress is always a blow, a parrying, an attempt at taming or calming. And it is oneself one is trying to tame, not just the other. The other in sex is the self we desire and fear.
Dominance and submission … I am guessing that this is the aspect of Delacroix’s vision that most makes present-day viewers wince. But Delacroix is unequivocal. Maybe in the years following Sardanapalus he decided not to state the case so openly, so pornographically, but the metaphor he then fell back on, of combat between men and animals, was sufficiently easy to decode. The lions and tigers and shrieking horses in his pictures are to be understood as women. Men are truly endangered by them, and regularly lose their hard and fast identities in the struggle. The loss is unnerving, but delectable, for eventually the men will win. The animals are more powerful and beautiful, and power and beauty are ultimate values in Delacroix’s world, but the pursuers have the weapons and the servants with ropes – the means of penetration and imprisonment. This is the story we call patriarchy.
What do we do, then, with an artist intent on stating – making irresistible – a view of the human so grim? The answer surely can’t turn on assent. I no more assent to Delacroix’s vision than I do to Wagner’s or Dostoevsky’s. And indeed, Delacroix’s art – is it like or unlike Wagner’s and Dostoevsky’s in this? – does not seem to want, or expect, the least flicker of agreement with the vision it brings to life. Sardanapalus is a young man’s fantasy. It knows it is preposterous: it is desperate to have us say no to it. The tumbling gold bric-à-brac, the tug of war between white horse and black slave, the flayed-skin bedspread, the blinking elephant bedpost – who in their right mind could mistake the atmosphere of burlesque?
Sex is burlesque – that seems to be the thought. Desire and possession are inherently absurd. We never assent to them. They happen to us, they take us over – the usual bodies and apparatus, the usual transgressions. And Sardanapalus proposes that it is only by dint of the grossest pictorial hyperbole – by thrusting the untruth of sexuality in our faces, by a pantomime of spillage and ejaculation, by infantile overemphasis and gloating – that the hidden madness of ‘what men want’ from women will come to the surface.
Again, this vision of sex and humanity could hardly spell out more clearly that it is, and knows itself to be, unconvincing. But from this a further question follows. Is it the case that an artist’s mad fixing on just one aspect of the human condition – in Delacroix’s case, his constant twisting together of sexuality and violence, his love-death collapsing of human and animal – is part of a wider vision of the world that one can find oneself assenting to? To this, my Lion Hunt answer is yes. Not just that the human and the animal are indistinguishable; but that ‘animality’ in human form is much more dreadful, more death-dealing, than anything animals have proved capable of. If that is Delacroix’s lesson, it has not gone out of date. And further still – but this lesson seems to me to have a positive as well as a negative face – the human as Delacroix shows it turns on a strange, unstoppable will to self-loss, self-endangerment, entanglement, interpenetration. Look one last time at the horse and rider in Lion Hunt, locked in their tender parallelogram. The self entering the other, the other seen as the self – this is Delacroix’s utopia.
We are not worlds away in Lion Hunt, in other words, from the moments in Delacroix’s art – and they do exist – when violence transmutes to balance and mutuality. Liberty Guiding the People. Jacob Wrestling with the Angel. (The optimism of pessimists is the most interesting kind.) Antagonism stilled and refocused; otherness embraced; air and dawn clarity, the slow time of Nature, overtaking the fight to the death. The great oaks looking down on the wrestlers, their branches mimicking but also dwarfing – ironising – the ways of man. And this too – this moment of arrest and understanding – is what the fallen rider holds fast.