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Trailer for Eve Sussman & The Rufus Corporation’s single-channel video The Rape of the Sabine Women, 2007. Courtesy the artists and Roebling Hall.

Trailer for Eve Sussman & The Rufus Corporation’s single-channel video The Rape of the Sabine Women, 2007. Courtesy the artists and Roebling Hall.

About the Work

Eve Sussman (born 1961) has worked primarily in film, video, and installation; she now collaborates with a large interdisciplinary group known as The Rufus Corporation. Their two most recent major projects are grand, highly stylized videos that take canonical Western paintings as points of departure. The lavish, stately 89 Seconds at Alcázar (2004), for example, imagines what it might have been like to be behind the scenes as Diego Velásquez painted his masterpiece Las Meninas (1656). Building on that project, Sussman invited additional collaborators to form the Rufus Corporation. Adaptation presents their The Rape of the Sabine Women (2007), an operatically scaled, feature-length video that was initially inspired by Jacques Louis David’s painting The Intervention of the Sabine Women (1799) and then developed into a loose retelling of the myth on which David’s painting was, in turn, based.

The Rape of the Sabine Women

Eve Sussman & The Rufus Corporation’s version of the myth of the Sabine women, a largely improvised video set in the 1960s, explores complex contemporary territory. Filmed in Germany and Greece and sublimely scored by Jonathan Bepler, the work intertwines several lines of imagery and loose narrative. Dark-suited, purposeful men stride through the Pergamon Museum’s classical statuary or the baggage area of an airport; the men observe and abduct women from within a crowded meat market; and they all lounge around a sleek modern home in a post-party atmosphere of collective ennui. Here, the video radically reinvents the love triangle of the myth (the Sabine women, the Sabine men, and the Roman men). It focuses instead on subtler and more familiar interactions among the women and their captors. Tensions build, new bonds fray, and the group’s almost-utopian moment of domestic coexistence devolves into the climactic battle scene that ends the work, a carefully orchestrated melee that evokes imagery from art history.

One of the foundational myths of Rome, the story of the Sabine women has inspired writers and artists for two thousand years. As the ancient writer Livy tells the tale, there were no women in early Rome and thus no possibility of children who would continue the new city-state beyond one generation. When diplomatic attempts to arrange intermarriage failed, the Roman leaders resorted to trickery: they invited their neighbors the Sabines to a festival and betrayed their trust by abducting the unsuspecting Sabine women. The Romans married the women and won them over so thoroughly that when Sabine soldiers later returned to fight the Romans, the Sabine women: “went boldly into the midst of the flying missiles with disheveled hair and rent garments. Running across the space between the two armies they tried to stop any further fighting and calm the excited passions by appealing to their fathers in the one army and their husbands in the other. . .”

Important visualizations of the myth include Nicolas Poussin’s seventeeth-century painting of the abduction and Jacques-Louis David’s The Intervention of the Sabine Women (1799). David’s painting focuses on the moment of return: in the midst of tumult, a woman extends her arms to separate two soldiers, seeking conciliation rather than further bloodshed.