It Speaks to Me: Richard Hawkins on Gustave Moreau’s “Salome Dancing Before Herod,” 1876, at the Hammer Museum

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This is the most iconic painting of French Decadence. Cultural critics in the 1980s saw Salome as this symbol of the femme fatale when, in fact, there is so much more at play here: a darker, richer sort of perversity. Moreau is bringing back religious subject matter, but instead of, say, a crucifixion he chooses one of the strangest stories of the New Testament, as if he’s going for shock value. The work is filled with this confusion of architectural styles and symbols, like the multi-breasted statue of Cybele, the Roman goddess whose followers included a castration cult. Then there’s the painting’s surface— globules of pure paint encased under these layers and layers of glaze until they glisten, like semi-precious stones. At a time when the Impressionists’ quest for immediacy had led them to abandon their studios and leave their tins of varnish behind, this kind of lacquered density feels very contrary. Moreau’s going for an arcane, even Byzantine fantasy of what the past might’ve—or should’ve—been.

— Artist Richard Hawkins, as told to Jori Finkel