Alma Tadema Cinematic Blockbuster Painting – By Edward Lucie-Smith

Alma Tadema The Roses of Heliogabalus (1888)


At first glance, the late Victorian grandee who works is now in a show at Leighton House, and today’s culture hero Damien Hirst, leader of the YBA revolution of the 1990s, would seem to have little in common. The resemblances only begin to show themselves when you look a bit closer.

Tadema was an immigrant, born in Friesland in the Northern Netherlands, and already quite well established as a painter when he came to live and work in London, where – though he never lost his Dutch accent – he knew an enormous success. By the end of his life, he was loaded with official honours – a knighthood, the Order of Merit, international honours of all kinds. His chief rivals were John Singer Sargent and Lord Leighton. Sargent was American, and never surrendered his American citizenship. Leighton was British, but received his early artistic training abroad, studying at the Accademia di Belli Arte in Florence, and living in Parris from 1855 to 1859, where he met all the leading French artists of the day. He did not settle in London until 1860 when he was already thirty years old. In contrast to both these contemporaries and rivals, both of whom remained unmarried and who seem to have been discreetly homosexual, Tadema had a wife and children. His second wife – his first wife died early – was an accomplished artist, some of whose work can also be seen in the current show at Leighton House.

The general view of Tadema, whose work fell rather swiftly from favour after his death in 1912, sixteen years after his rival Leighton, but a dozen before Sargent, who survived until 1925, Is that he was a kind of belated neo-classicist. The show at Leighton House demonstrates very clearly that this is misguided. Tadema, especially towards the end of his career, painted a large number of Ancient Roman compositions – lots of marble and female figures in white robes –but he began within the tradition of Dutch genre painting, founded in the 17th century but still very much alive two hundred and more years later.

Alma Tadema Neo-Classical Dutch Genre Painting
Alma Tadema Dutch Genre Painting With A Neo-Classical Twist

His meticulously crafted compositions are often surprisingly small in size. It’s only occasionally that he hits you in the eye with a big picture. You have to wait till the very end of the show to see the two most famous of these, The Roses of Heliogabalus (1888) and The Finding of Moses (1904). When one looks at the smaller pictures, one is constantly surprised, not only by the finesse of the workmanship but by the off-kilter compositions- often the kind of thing an adventurous photographer might go for now, but pre-dating the time when photography of this kind became fashionable, in the hands of Alfred Stieglitz, Edward J. Steichen ad Paul Strand. Tadema, for example, is the master of the space-beyond-a-space – the more distant space more brightly lit than what is in the foreground. Though the actual handling of his work could not be more different from what you find in the work of his Impressionist contemporaries, he too, like them, seems to have been influenced by the daringly lop-sided compositional devices to be found in Japanese ukioye prints. This is especially apparent in narrow, slender upright compositions – the equivalents of Japanese and Chinese hanging scrolls. Oddly, the very comprehensive exhibition catalogue is silent about this.

What it does stress in the link between some of Tadema’s compositions and modern blockbuster movies. This applies not only to early silent movies but to a whole sequence of more recent films: Ben Hur (1925), Cecil DeMille’s Cleopatra (1934) and Ten Commandments (1956). The influence was openly admitted by Arthur Max, the production designer for Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000). Max said in an interview:

Alma Tadema Family Portrait
Alma Tadema Family Portrait

‘Because the story we were telling has a lot of sinister intrigue and manipulation, with people living in fear of the Emperor, we had to create an ambience that reflected this. I, therefore, began working in a style I called ‘Black Tadema’, tweaking Alma-Tadema’s work a little bit.’

It’s at this point that Damien Hirst’s recent work, specifically the two exhibitions called Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable, now on view at Palazzo Grassi and Porto Dogana in Venice until next December 3rd, inevitably comes to mind.  Most of all the link to the very cinematic Roses of Heliogabalus

With Spot Paintings and Spin Paintings now well behind him, it’s, in fact, surprising that Hirst, as an accomplished appropriator, hasn’t included a version of this. An immersive paraphrase, made to be viewed through 3-D glasses, would surely be a winner. We’d all flock to be smothered harmlessly in rose petals.

There’s also the fact that –er-um – Tadema and Hirst nevertheless remain intractably of their own epochs. Tadema’a female protagonists, often modelled by his wife, are recognisably refined late Victorian ladies, in costumes borrowed from the wardrobes of members of the Aesthetic Movement. Damien Hirst, so recent paintings tell us, is a fan of Kate Moss.

Alma-Tadema: At Home in Antiquity 7 July – 29 October 2017 Leighton House Museum London

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