SOMEONE HAS HAD A GO AT THIS PAINTING AT SOME POINT
Solomon Joseph Solomon, Ajax and Cassandra (1886). Collection: Art Gallery of Ballarat, Victoria. Purchased 1887. On display.
AS a young boy in the 1880s, Norman Lindsay would often visit his local Ballarat art gallery to study a painting that had made a lasting impression on him, and which gave him his penchant for voluptuous nudes.
That painting was Solomon J. Solomon’s Ajax and Cassandra and such was Lindsay’s enthusiasm he later wrote he had ‘‘ tender memories’’ of the picture. In the 1950s he even donated some of his work to the gallery in appreciation of its ‘‘ great stimulus’’.
When Ajax and Cassandra was purchased by the Art Gallery of Ballarat in 1887, it was considered a great coup. The painting was first exhibited at the Royal Academy in London in 1886. A year later, it was selected by one of the premier commercial art galleries in London, the Grosvenor Gallery, to tour to Melbourne, where it was exhibited at the Public Library and Art Gallery.
Normally a work like this would be destined for a state gallery but the newly founded gallery of Ballarat displayed a good deal of chutzpah in purchasing it quickly with the help of funds provided by the Victorian colonial government.
Since its purchase, Ajax and Cassandra has remained one of the gallery’s most loved paintings. It is based on the story from classical mythology of the rape of Cassandra, a daughter of the king of Troy. Cassandra was given the gift of prophecy by the god Apollo, who was infatuated with her. But when Cassandra spurned Apollo’s advances, he added a deadly twist to her gift of prophecy: she would tell the truth but no one would believe her. When Troy fell to the Greeks, Cassandra took shelter in the temple of Athena and clung to a statue of the goddess. But Ajax found her there, dragged her from the statue and raped her.
When I visit Ballarat, I’m shown Ajax and Cassandra by the gallery’s director, Gordon Morrison, who says the picture is a grand example of the Victorian tradition of harking back to classical mythology as a source of inspiration. Solomon, who was one of the few Jewish artists to be made a member of the Royal Academy of Art in the Victorian era, was keen on large epic pictures of this nature.
‘‘ What is fascinating for me is that we have these perceptions of Victorian people being quite prudish, but in actual fact if the story and the setting was right you could depict a rape scene, which was perfectly OK if it was clothed in the respectability of mythology,’’ Morrison says. The picture, however, wasn’t hung in the foyer area to avoid offending delicate sensibilities.
Morrison believes there is an extraordinary sense of grandeur about the painting. ‘‘ I love the little things you pick up, the visual hints of what is going on, such as the torn garland, probably signifying what is going to happen in terms of the virginity of the priestess,’’ he says. ‘‘ Then there is the upturned incense, which is implying that this is a totally impious act. There are things to do with the symbolism in the painting which I think work beautifully.
‘‘ It is also quite an amazing bit of composition where it is almost like a helix in the way the figures are bonding. But ultimately it is just about the scale and the grandeur of it that I think works.’’
While we are discussing the work, Morrison points out some concentric circles on the painting’s surface that you notice if get up close. He says this type of cracking only happens when a canvas receives a direct blow from a blunt object. ‘‘ One circle is centred on Ajax’s nipple and the other on Cassandra’s nether regions,’’ he says. ‘‘ This implies that someone has had a go at this painting at some point. So obviously during its history visitors have reacted to it in various ways.’’