On Severed Heads

“Ah! thou wouldst not suffer me to kiss thy mouth, Iokanaan. Well! I will kiss it now. I will bite it with my teeth as one bites a ripe fruit. Yes, I will kiss thy mouth, Iokanaan. I said it; did I not say it? I said it. Ah! I will kiss it now . . . . But wherefore dost thou not look at me, Iokanaan? Thine eyes that were so terrible, so full of rage and scorn, are shut now. Wherefore are they shut? Open thine eyes! Lift up thine eyelids, Iokanaan! Wherefore dost thou not look at me? Art thou afraid of me, Iokanaan, that thou wilt not look at me?”

Oscar Wilde, Salomé (1891)
Rosie Dahlstrom: ‘Sea Creatures 6’, watercolour on paper, 21cm x 29cm (2020)
Rosie Dahlstrom: ‘In the garden grows’, acrylic, gold leaf and pen on paper, collage, 40cm x 40cm (2015)
Rosie Dahlstrom: ‘Fat black truths that look like flies’, oil on canvas, 50cm x 90cm (2015)

So, this discussion is prompted by a recent return to one of my favourite subjects: the severed head. Above you can see firstly ‘Sea Creatures 6’, the lockdown watercolour from autumn 2020 that reignited my fascination in decapitation, and below some of my paintings from 2015 of some other heads, which still, more subtly, have origins in my interpretation of the Medusa/Gorgon Sisters narrative.

When I think of a severed head, I think of two of my favourite monstrous women: Medusa and Salome. Medusa is arguably throughout art history the most famous example of a complex corpse: her trophy head is initially a triumph of the god-favoured Perseus, a classical hero; the body part is then turned into a weapon of war with its mounting on Athena’s shield; but with Caravaggio the dead flesh shifted into self-portraiture and an admission of ugliness and violence within ourselves; then, to a romantic 18th century expression of glamorous horror, to, finally, in the 20th century, a symbol of feminist resistance and female anger, which persists as the dominant reading to this day.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio: ‘Medusa’, oil on canvas (1597)

Medusa and her corpse has become a symbol that has metamorphosed over the centuries like few other images in Western history. Decapitation was traditionally, globally, the punishment for the very worst crimes against the ruling classes: in most cases, treason. A severed head represents the punishment and vanquishment of a threat to the fundamental ideology of the dominant culture. Or, through its pure brutality, it can also later illustrate the wickedness of a sinful regime, such as Herod’s lust-fuelled punishment of St John the Baptist, as recounted in the Old Testament. Here the roles are switched: sinful king cuts head off saintly preacher in order to please slutty Salome.

Aubrey Beardsley: ‘The Climax’, Illustration for Wilde’s ‘Salomé‘, line block print on paper (1893)

The direct inverse of this story would be the Biblical story of Judith and Holofernes, immortalised by Artemisia Gentileschi in one of my favourite Baroque paintings: virtuous queen cuts off head of sinful, rapist warlord. Anne Boleyn, very famously, was also decapitated; at the time she was an incestuous harlot who had bewitched the leader of the Church of England; nowadays she is simply an ambitious woman who was biologically unfortunate and was brutally murdered by a syphilitic despot. The random fertilisation of eggs and sperm resulting in successful breeding was considered, in Tudor times, political acts and factual proof of good or bad character, as and when it suited the agenda of the powerful.

Artemisa Gentileschi: ‘Judith slaying Holofernes’, oil on canvas (1614-18)

Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, perhaps most shockingly of all was decapitated; people don’t feel that bad about that even now, as France as a contemporary nation has seemed to have settled on the pre-Napoleonic codes of post-revolutionary France: separation of church and state, democracy, abolishment of nobility, unions and strikes, ‘les vestes jaunes’ – all French revolutionary ideals that still stand as part of French identity despite a few 19th century wobbles. The fact that Bastille Day has survived from the 18th century event that marked the first act of national revolution, to become the French national holiday, shows how deeply the revolution, the guillotine, and baskets of severed heads have formed the contemporary French identity and identifications. An identity that is strong, but brittle. I like to imagine the Marquis de Sade furiously writing ‘120 Days of Sodom’ on toilet paper in a dank cell deep in the Bastille while nearby heads flopped into bloody baskets at the height of the Terror.

Strauss’ Salome (dir. Jonathan Haswell, Royal Opera House Covent Garden, London, 2008) Photo credit: Clive Barda

So the image of a severed head, for me and my work, rotates around combinations of ancient mythology, European history, and contemporary attitudes. The modern operatic interpretations of Oscar Wilde’s play Salomé by Richard Strauss, most recently at the National Opera House in London in 2012, give a brand new photographic source of the grim and gorgeous images of the necrophiliac, bloody conclusions of the Aesthetic and provocative Wilde play. It is one thing enjoying Aubrey Beardsley’s beautiful Art Nouveau illustrations but seeing the scenes acted out with high production values is even more exciting. I would like to make a severed head like the one created as a prop by the National Opera. I will work it out eventually. It looks so good. The story of Salome and St John the Baptist, as re-imagined by Wilde and Strauss, is a rape fantasy at its core, but one underpinned with female sexuality for an extra layer of perversity; control and ownership, visceral and insane.

I have spoken in previous essays about the punishment of being burned at the stake, which was the fate of my character Delphyne, who moves between heretic and saint. Execution by burning at the stake signified a crime against god; but decapitation was a crime against the king – against the law of man. Adultery, sexual violence, inequality, anger and injustice and the shock of a once infallible victim all play a part in the stories of decapitations that we remember in modern times.

Inequality and anger has not gone away, and especially not for the Islamic State and its radicalised followers. France, especially, as a nation that outlawed ‘burkini’s’ and any expression of religious symbolism, as well as racial inequalities that have been compounded by the refugee crisis of the past few years, has made a series of decisions that has cumulatively led to a spate of violent terrorist acts, from the Charlie Hebdo shootings to the Eagles of Death Metal concert. Most recently a very sad and disturbing beheading of a French teacher made headlines. The shock of an act of such brutality towards a member of a secular community in Europe should only bring a discussion of the inequalities, racism and political actions towards the vulnerable members of French society; how to protect ourselves, not how to violently retaliate.

Beheading, decapitations, executions and the dead trophies once mounted on medieval battlements have not been consigned to history; now they represent the most extreme outcomes of struggles of power. These struggles that erupt in the worst, most brutal violence either against vulnerable citizens in order to strengthen political powers, or against the powerful structures that some organisations seek to dismantle through terror. Decapitated heads, as trophies or atrocities, represent failings on both sides. History will continue to use these violent stories as illustrations of our society’s failings, and these stories will continue to shape our identities.

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