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Friday 9th December - The Death of Sardanapalus

By Kirsty Stonell Walker @boccabaciata

 Here we are at the end of another week and it is flipping freezing in the UK.  I'm writing this from underneath several blankets and a very warm dog, as none of us can afford to put the heating on this year, so let us warm our hearts with a bit of murder...

Friday 9th December - The Death of Sardanapalus

The Death of Sardanapalus (1827, replica 1844) Eugene Delacroix

Good Heavens, I've been looking forward to this one because what on earth is going on here?! This is why I don't go to office Christmas parties.  Here we have Sardanapalus, the sort-of last King of Assyria (he wasn't but people apparently wish he was with this sort of shenanigan) having a bit of a party - he obviously woke up one morning and thought 'Do you know what would improve an orgy? Stabbing!'  Honestly, my first thought would have been 'more throw pillows and less humus' but that's just me. He is infamous for his life of sloth, decadence and bizarre death which is a massive amount of obnoxious overachieving. He also may not have existed, but that's a whole other problem so let's stick to the fun myths and legends.

Friday 9th December - The Death of Sardanapalus

The Dream of Sardanapalus (1871) Ford Madox Brown

Sardanapalus is the subject of a poem by Byron based on Ancient Roman texts.  Although Byron has him as a bit debauched and vain, he isn't all stabby orgies and cross-dressing like in the legends. Ford Madox Brown's painting depicts the dream he has of banqueting with his dead ancestors while being watched by his wise slave-girl Myrrha, who seems to be having a bit of a sneaky look at his six-pack. Anyway, this is far removed from the stab-orgy that Delacroix gives us, but then Delacroix isn't the only one to paint the death of Sardanapalus...

Friday 9th December - The Death of Sardanapalus

The Death of Sardanapalus (undated) Alexandre-Marie Colin


Alexandre-Marie Colin, a contemporary of Delacroix gives us a more traditional end of the dissolute king, where, in the face of defeat, he climbs on top of a vast pyre containing his possessions and sets fire to it, including Myrrha, who dies with him.  All around them, there is chaos and destruction but the main focus is on the King and his slave.  In many ways the two paintings are depicting the same scene but in different ways. Colin's King, although defeated, has a noble moment with Myrrha, choosing his own death.  
Friday 9th December - The Death of Sardanapalus

In contrast, Delacroix's King is looking on in an almost bored manner as everyone gets murdered. He looks a bit miffed to be honest, like he's thinking 'All I wanted was five minutes peace and quiet and a bit of a sit down!' I love the girl who has decided to dramatically die across his bed, like she's trying to pad her part in the painting - she obviously thought 'If I'm getting bumped off in this picture, I'm going to be the one everyone remembers!'.  Sadly, she obviously upstaged by this pair...

Friday 9th December - The Death of Sardanapalus

They are working as a team to get the most attention and she's pulled the double whammy of getting both her bum and boobs out.  The horse knows no-one will notice that he's being done in too...

Friday 9th December - The Death of Sardanapalus

'I had my mane plaited for nothing!'

My favorite bit has to be this chap, who looks like he carried in the drinks tray but suspects he brought it to the wrong table and isn't paid enough to clear up this nonsense...

Friday 9th December - The Death of Sardanapalus

'Why does this always happen on my shift...?'


Sardanapalus is watching over the destruction of his horses, slaves and most valuable concubines (it's a good day to be a less valuable concubine, I'm guessing) but in Delacroix's vision, the King doesn't seem to be in any actual danger himself, or preparing to burn himself alive.  For something entitled 'The Death of Sardanapalus', he's not exactly doing a lot of dying. It seems to be yet another debauched, extreme entertainment for him, but unlike other images of how appalling and shocking people-who-aren't-us are (you know, foreign types), Delacroix almost involves us in the carnage.  It spills over the sides of the canvas and the use of space infers that we are in the room taking part in this orgy of destruction. It shocked and horrified contemporary audiences who found the sheer excess of it all too much.  It can't have escaped anyone's notice that the viewer of the painting is watching over it with the same level of disinterest and detachment as the debauched King.  
As time went on, however, it became regarded as Delacroix's masterpiece.  The very cynical part of me wonders if such praise was kept back until the artist was dead because (a) we don't want him to do anything more graphic by encouraging him and (b) we can place our own interpretation on the image without the artist pointing out we are all King Sardanapalus.  We can go on about the composition and brushstrokes without admitting that we enjoy looking at a painting where lots of naked ladies are being murdered with their boobs out.  The vicarious enjoyment of violence powers much of our media content and always did - blimey, how many detective series start with a murdered woman? In Delacroix's vision, I'm betting that the viewers aren't identifying with the victims.  Sardanapalus will forever get away with it, sat on his elephant bed in absolutely no danger at all. Just like us.
See you tomorrow...

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