The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts - Bron­wyn Wat­son GOR­DON MOR­RI­SON

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.’’

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