As the nineteenth century turned to the twentieth, artistic interest in the figure of Salome reached new heights. An unusually large number of painters, sculptors, and writers turned towards the biblical dancer with renewed interest, and transformed the girl whom the Bible described as a mere instrument of Herodias’s wrath into an active agent of female desire, casting her as the prototype of the ‘femme fatale’.
Oscar Wilde’s play Salome, first performed in Paris in 1896, was one of the key works that established Salome’s fame as cultural icon of fin-de-siècle Europe. In Wilde’s drama, Herodias and her vengeance retreat to the background of the story, while Salome’s twisted desire for the prophet Jokanaan (John the Baptist) comes to the fore. Aware of her own sensuality and sexual power, she is driven by her obsession to kiss the prophet, which in the end, will cause not only his, but also her own demise.
Wilde’s drama was particularly enthusiastically received in Russia, where his femme fatale underwent yet another transformation in the context of the emerging Soviet state. Here, she was re-interpreted as an androgynous and Amazon-like character, and transformed into an emblem not only for a new artistic avant-garde indebted to Futurism, Cubism, and Constructivism, but also for a new, energetic, and determined woman born out of the Revolution.
Aleksandra Ekster’s designs for Aleksandr Tairov’s 1917 production of Wilde’s Salome at the Kamerny Theatre in Moscow are perhaps the most radical embodiments of these ideas. In her costume design for Salome’s Dance of the Seven Veils, shown here, Ekster strips the dancer of all connotations of sensuality and eroticism. Instead, Salome’s passions and destructive desires are transformed into an energetic kaleidoscope of movement and colour, her body merging with the stage behind.
Misler, Nicoletta. 2011. ‘Seven Steps, Seven Veils: Salomé in Russia’, Experiment, 17: 155–84
6But when Herod’s birthday came, the daughter of Heroʹdi-as danced before the company, and pleased Herod, 7so that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she might ask. 8Prompted by her mother, she said, “Give me the head of John the Baptist here on a platter.” 9And the king was sorry; but because of his oaths and his guests he commanded it to be given; 10he sent and had John beheaded in the prison, 11and his head was brought on a platter and given to the girl, and she brought it to her mother.
21But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and the leading men of Galilee. 22For when Heroʹdi-as’ daughter came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will grant it.” 23And he vowed to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” 24And she went out, and said to her mother, “What shall I ask?” And she said, “The head of John the baptizer.” 25And she came in immediately with haste to the king, and asked, saying, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” 26And the king was exceedingly sorry; but because of his oaths and his guests he did not want to break his word to her. 27And immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard and gave orders to bring his head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, 28and brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl; and the girl gave it to her mother.