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Dangerous to Beauties: The Sabine Women, Symbolic Conquest, and Classicism

Rebecca Zorach, Associate Professor, Art History, University of Chicago


The hand-held camera jumps and jerks; at full scale, it’s vaguely nauseating. We flash backward and forward: there’s grainy video of a stone face brutalized by the years, scenes of an idyllic place we do not yet know, references to things we’ve seen before, the sea. Sounds of shuffling feet surround us—and coughing, effortful grunts, keening voices, mechanical noise. From Berlin to the butchers’ stalls of Athens, disorientation doesn’t stop. Metal clashes, vendors call out against a buzz of nearly static, expectant sound, and women are dragged away—rag dolls that put up no resistance. With its knives slowly, rhythmically falling, the violence of the meat market does not reassure us that what the women leave behind is preferable to what they face.

The story of the rape of the Sabine women is an ancient one. Like many founding myths of nations, it involves sexual violence.1 Romulus, one of the legendary founders of Rome, led a group of womanless men, a state without a nation, doomed to extinction. Neighboring tribes, including the Sabines, refused to intermarry with this band of interlopers, so the Romans invited them to a celebration. In the midst of the festivities, Romulus gave a signal by raising his cloak, and, acting in concert, the Roman warriors seized the Sabine women and abducted them, one for each, to serve as their wives.

But Romulus and his brother Remus are perhaps more famous for the story of their own foundling origins. According to the legend, they were suckled by a she-wolf. The wolf makes several appearances in The Rape of the Sabine Women (2006), a film by Eve Sussman & The Rufus Corporation. In early moments, the wolf lounges in the Pergamon Museum’s courtyard; later she sidles through the museum and appears in the aftermath of the story. With the wolf and the story of Rome’s origins in mind, one might notice that the Pergamon courtyard resembles the Capitoline hill in Rome. Imposing classical facades constitute three sides of a square, with the fourth opening onto a descending staircase. The Capitoline—legendary original seat of government—displays in its courtyard a reproduction of the famous bronze statue of the wolf suckling the two boys.

Like the Capitoline museums, the Pergamon Museum houses antiquities, but in the German case, they are conquered antiquities, at least symbolically so, suggesting northern cultural supremacy—the museums of northern Europe as secure repositories for Mediterranean artifacts. The centerpiece, the Pergamon altar, reflects violence and conquest. This is the starting place for a band of dark-suited men—automata taking their marching instructions from radio signals or cold, calculating conquerors?—who travel south to abduct butchers’ daughters from a meat market in Greece. The context makes plain a series of associations: body, meat, carnality, the marketplace, the animal, blood, and dirt. When next we meet these men and their new wives, the blood has been drained, the dirt has been cleansed: we encounter them enscened in a 1960s resort house, a place of closed bodies, clean, stylish, sealed off from the viewer. This dream house is populated with trophy women resembling nothing so much as the fragmentary statues in the Pergamon’s collection.

The stylish 1960s effects seen in the Greek beach house suggest modernism’s own form of classicism: its commercialization and codification, its development of its own standard set of idioms, its imperialism, its concealment of violence. Violent undercurrents are evident, and reemerge in the final sequence, in which the women intervene, ineffectually, in an attempt to stop a shoving, shuffling, puppetlike battle among the men. This sequence adapts a final episode of the Sabines’ story, depicted in the painting Intervention of the Sabine Women (1794–99) by Jacques-Louis David, in which the Sabine women, now married to Romans, intervene in battle to defend their husbands and children against their own countrymen.

Cultural property, political power, classical style, and violence: Eve Sussman & the Rufus Corporation unravel threads already present in the story of the Sabine women. In this they follow, however contrarily, in the tradition of Baroque painting and sculpture. This famous “rape” has been a favorite subject in classicizing European art—the main points of reference are Giambologna, Poussin, David, and Picasso. We might even consider it a paradigmatic subject matter for classicism. Artworks on this theme are always already adaptations: of an eminently classical literary subject matter, part of the founding myth of Rome, present in numerous authors—Cicero, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Juvenal, Livy, and Ovid, whose presence is signaled by the short text from the Metamorphoses (in Ted Hughes’s translation) that serves as the epigraph of the film.

In keeping with the character of myth, Sussman & the Rufus Corporation do not pin the story down to a single allegorical meaning; in contrast to their earlier film, 89 Seconds at Alcázar, there is no single work or artist from which this film takes its primary inspiration.

The story of the Sabine women can be viewed as one of symbolic conquest, the appropriation of a nation’s women representing the seizure of territory. In the highly competitive and masculinist art world of Baroque Europe, this same story could also serve as an allegory of art. In artworks’ meta-reflections on artistic practice, the female body conventionally allegorizes art, nature, subject, or medium. Thus the conquest of the Sabines can be viewed—perhaps uncomfortably, by us today—as a figure for the heroic agency of the artist. Notably, in the case of the Sabines, the conquest is not only that of a female body, but also that of a male rival, the Sabine man. On some level the story was paradigmatic for artistic adaptation: artists wrested subject matter from prior or lesser artists, establishing supremacy in transforming the material. Eve Sussman & the Rufus Corporation complicate this equation with their collaborative, improvisatory method: there is no single competitor in the artistic battle, and certainly no heroic male artist serving as the conqueror here. And the conquest itself is a decidedly unheroic, ironic, even depressing one.

When we look to Baroque versions, we can also see that the theme was flexible enough to make different moral arguments. Poussin’s two versions of the Rape of the Sabine Women suggest, on the one hand, an embrace of nationalist myth and, on the other its critique. Poussin’s classicism involves a panoramic scene, a collection of individual moments of pathos orchestrated into a unified whole. His body types are borrowed from the canonical possibilities of antique sculpture, combined, edited, unified, ruled by a system of mathematical rules and a strict facial grammar of the passions, and articulated by dramatic color changes. Poussin’s Metropolitan Museum version seems to glorify the majesty of state violence; its backdrop of monumental architecture suggests a purely governmental context. The backdrop of his Louvre version already suggests something different: it contains both civic and domestic architecture, and female onlookers. In the Louvre version, Romulus is a less appealing figure, his posture slack. The Roman soldiers display exaggerated facial features that, in the Baroque facial grammar, make them look villainous. The painting appears almost as a parody of the earlier version; it makes the rough violence inherent in the story plain.

Painting in the Baroque struggled for qualities we would now call cinematic, against its lacks: sound and motion. The film gives us a dialectic of motion and stillness, and a powerful interplay of silence and mostly wordless sound. The central scene of the film, a rape enacted brutally beneath stiffly hanging rabbit carcasses, is entirely silent. Watching it, one feels, to use a cliché, as if the air has been sucked out of the room. In The Rape of the Sabine Women, sound is used to dramatic effect by both its presence and its absence. Why, in the scene of the abductions, are there no urgent shouts or cries from the victims? Why none in the final scene of the battle and intervention? In the market, we hear expectant murmurs, buzzing, clanging knives, the hiss of scalding liquids, and rhythmic shouts of vendors in the market. In the beach house, we hear music and muffled words. The vocal emotion is subdued, subjected to a logic of rhythm and undertone, not comprehensible in words. The same holds true in the final moments of the film, in which keening voices suggest rhythmic worry, but articulate no intelligible meaning.

In those moments, dust rises, obscuring and whitening bodies that—without protest—are shedding bright garments. These bodies are stubbornly material but also statuelike, as they descend from humanness, confusedly, slowly, into the state of a classical battle frieze.

What’s most disturbing about the final sequence is its confusion of fact and fiction, its wordlessness. Bodies stumble into each other, shoving and murmuring with no sense of human intention, as if still being controlled by radio, like the men in the museum, or the Roman soldiers orchestrated by the raising of Romulus’s cloak. Throughout the film, the viewer is kept off guard through a foregrounding of the medium: shots of the production crew, the camera, audio engineers, proleptic cuts and perceptual tricks (shots of mirrors, screens, windows, grainy video footage, projected footage, an amber filter that creates a 1960s home movie look), culminating in the final sequence in which it is not at all clear what is happening in the diegetic world and what is outside it. In the end, they seem to merge, suggesting part of the point is about fiction itself.

In the epigraph, Ovid (via Hughes) makes an invocation to the gods to reanimate their own stories of creation, violence, and magical transformation. Video gives us this, if enigmatically. Ovid’s account of the Sabine story in the Ars Amatoria, his treatise on love, is quite different from other versions (including his own in the Fasti). In this version, the setting for the abductions is a primitive form of a theater—like the setting of the final scene of the film. Ovid was arguing against xenophobic and anti-theatrical views prevalent in Rome in which the theater, sign of decadence, was seen as an import from Greece.2 For Ovid, in the Ars Amatoria, the theater, with all its dangerous sexuality and commingling of genders, was instituted by Romulus himself, as part of the very founding of the Roman nation. And theaters, he writes at the end of the passage on the Sabines, are still today—as courting places—dangerous (insidiosa) to beauties (formosis). They might indeed be dangerous to viewers in general. In light of Ovid, we might read the film as a comment on another kind of symbolic conquest, perhaps a more optimistic one than the final display of dogged violence suggests: the power of the medium over the viewer, the power to mesmerize and ravish us, perhaps to transform us.

1Modern art historians often hasten to inform us that in ancient or early modern times, “rape” meant kidnapping, not sexual violation—but this is really a moot point, since, speaking in historical terms, the latter would almost invariably accompany the former.

2A. E. Wardman, “The Rape of the Sabines,” in The Classical Quarterly, new series, vol. 15, n.1 (May 1965), 101–3.

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