In Joris-Karl Huysman’s 1884 novel À Rebours, the solitary aesthete Jean des Esseintes is ‘obsessed’ with the Biblical figure of Salome, ‘a mystery to all the writers who had never succeeded in portraying the disquieting exaltation of this dancer, the refined grandeur of this murderess.’ Salome was a fixture in the mind of many such writers and artists, as a seductive enchantress of the femme fatale variety, the (in fact unnamed) dancer who requests the head of John the Baptist on a platter in the New Testament. She has cast her spell on the likes of Titian to Rubens, in particular igniting the artistic imagination of the fin-de-siècle and the Symbolist artists. Oscar Wilde’s 1893 play Salome famously invented her ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’ striptease, whilst in the paintings of Gustave Moreau, ‘Des Esseintes at last saw realized the superhuman and exotic Salome of his dreams’ – a revelation he subsequently delights in waxing lyrical about for several more pages.
Had Des Esseintes known of Federico Beltran Masses’ 1918 Salome, however, he would surely have considered this the superior version, that could finally fulfil his ‘exotic’ (and erotic) vision. Named by one London newspaper, upon its display in 1929, as ‘the most daring nude picture ever painted’, it is not difficult to see why this work was so controversial in its day. In fact, even by today’s standards, this Salome has an undeniably powerful sexuality and presence. In its own day, there cannot have been many existing works that were comparably daring in their representation of female sexuality, except perhaps Gustave Klimt’s Judith and the Head of Holofornes (1901) – Judith being another Biblical femme fatale associated with beheading, and Klimt’s painting notorious for its apparent depiction of her triumphant orgasm.
Yet in 1938, Beltran Masses (1885–1949) insisted that while, for some, ‘Salome is the symbol of all pagan and profane ecstasy… this particular painting was a study of foreshortening… an arduous two months’ struggle with colour and proportion’ – and that alone – at least for him. Since the artist was known as a modernist, we might choose to take his word for it, that this painting is purely concerned with aesthetic and form. This is easily disputed; modernist movements themselves did not exist in a cultural vacuum, and can hardly be called ‘pure’. The idealization of the ‘Orient’, and the appropriation of plundered designs and motifs for the heightened exoticization of the female nude, was part of a network of influences in the Western art canon that allowed ideology to work, myth-like, through the viewer. Consider Gustave Flaubert’s description of the titular Salammbô in his 1862 novel: ‘tresses of pearls were fastened to her temples, and fell to the corners of her mouth, which was as rosy as a half-open pomegranate. On her breast was a collection of luminous stones… her arms were adorned with diamonds, and issued naked from her sleeveless tunic, which was starred with red flowers on a perfectly black ground. Between her ankles she wore a golden chainlet to regulate her steps, and her large dark purple mantle, cut of an unknown material, trailed behind her, making, as it were, at each step, a broad wave which followed her.’ Aestheticized, yet also, surely, eroticized – the two are hardly mutually exclusive.
In any case, whether Beltran Masses’ work is to be considered in solely formalistic or in more erotic terms, he has left this interpretation ‘to the conscience of the onlooker’. For those onlookers hoping apply their own conscience to the painting, Salome will be the centrepiece in Stair Sainty Gallery’s upcoming show Federico Beltran Masses: Under the Stars, part of a larger collection of sixteen other works the Cuban-born painter executed between 1911 and 1932. Many of these are the so-called ‘psychological portraits’ of famous female entertainers, for which he is most well known. Salome is not the only dancer – Carmen Tórtola Valencia (1882-1955), for example, appears in Maja Maldita (1918) as a vampiric, mantilla-clad version of Velázquez’ Rokeby Venus (1651) or Goya’s La maja des nuda (1800). Bloodsucking Romanticism is also evoked in Pasión (1932), in which Joan Crawford swoons like a Gothic heroine in the arms of her then-husband Douglas Fairbanks, with whom she is sharing a night-time gondola ride as he buries his face in her neck.
Even in his so-called ‘conventional’ portraiture – Beltran Masses was a superstar in an orbit of royal and celebrity patrons whose portraits he often painted – something is off. There is a strange quality of light in La Viuda Narezo (1910) and Mrs Freda Dudley Ward (1921), like moonlight reflecting off a Venetian canal. Venice appears again in Las Hermanas de Venecia (1920), and of course there are the Spanish touches throughout – Las Ibericas (1924) particularly comes to mind with its guitars, mantillas and fans. There also seems to be something of a Picasso guitar player evoked in Tres Para Uno (1934). And Mirabella (1914) is a clear play on modernist precusor Manet’s Olympia (1865) – as well as, again, Goya’s maja.
That Beltran Masses successfully pulled off the hybridization of such a variety of influences is evident in his popularity with the gliteratti of his day, but remains clear even now. The Stair Sainty show promises to weave a story of romantic intrigue and sinister eroticism through this collection – just like the stories he wove around his subjects. Like Salome removing her Seven Veils, each viewing reveals another level of ecstatic fantasy, artist acting as guidepost as we reach towards the stars.
– Olivia Bladen
Federico Beltran Masses: Under the Stars is on view at Stair Sainty Gallery, 38 Dover Street, London, W1S 4NL; from 10th February – 24th March, 2016; Admission: FREE. Open Monday – Friday 10am to 6pm; Private View on 9th February, 6 – 8.30pm.