Art Imitates Life Imitates Art

June 2, 2021By Heidi EllisonDaytrips From Paris, Exhibitions
"Salammbô" (1893), by Victor Prouvé. © Nancy, Palais des Ducs de Lorraine-Musée Lorrain, P. Buren
“Salammbô” (1893), by Victor Prouvé. © Nancy, Palais des Ducs de Lorraine-Musée Lorrain, P. Buren

The lovely Musée des Beaux-arts in Rouen is celebrating the bicentennial of the birth of its famed native son Gustave Flaubert with a clever exhibition based on his historical novel Salammbô.

Why Salammbô and not the much more famous Madame Bovary? Because Madame Bovary, which has inspired many films, did not inspire much in the world of the arts while Salammbô, perhaps because of its exotic foreign location set far in the past, spurred a huge outpouring of works – paintings, sculptures, illustration, films, operas, comic strips and even video games.

To set the stage: after the publication of Madame Bovary, Flaubert was tried by the French government for “immorality” but was eventually acquitted. Fed up with the times he lived in and disgusted with the official reaction to his book, he turned to Antiquity for his next novel, setting Salammbô in ancient Carthage in the third century BCE.

Meanwhile, the French were chomping at the bit for his next novel, expecting something just as racy as Madame Bovary. The author kept them waiting for five years, however, while he conducted his trademark meticulous research into the subject, even traveling to Tunisia in 1858, and completely revising the novel afterward, even though there was not much to be seen of Carthage there, so completely had it been destroyed by the Romans in 146 BCE.

When Salammbô finally came out in 1862, it was a huge success. It was as hot a topic among friends as the latest Netflix series is today. As Le Figaro reported at the time: “Salammbô went on sale Thursday. Friends meeting up on the boulevards said to each other: ‘Where are you going?’ ‘I’m going home to read Salammbô. And you?’ ‘I’m on my way to buy Salammbô and then go home.’” The hotspots on the boulevards must have been very quiet that evening.

The novel, loosely based on Greek historian Polybius‘s Histories, tells the story of the revolt of mercenaries who were not paid for their services by Carthage. The heroes are Salammbô, daughter of the city’s magistrate and high priestess of the moon goddess, and Mâtho, a leader of the mercenaries. While the war between the mercenaries and the city takes up most of the novel, it was the naked Salammbô’s highly erotic ritual dance with a python entwined around her body that appealed to many artists.

The subject was so common that when artist Max Ernst found a painting of a voluptuous snake-entwined Salammbô by Michel Richard-Putz at a flea market, he painted over most of it, leaving visible only the body from the waist down, in an early example of the appropriation of another artist’s work.

Others, like comics artist Philippe Druillet, were also interested in the battle scenes. In his Salammbô (1980), he transposed the story to outer space. Original drawings from the work are on show in the exhibition.

Even Orson Welles’s film Citizen Kane, which many consider the best ever made, was influenced by Salammbô: Kane’s wife, Susan, a wannabe but talentless opera singer, chooses an aria from the fictional opera Salammbô for her ridiculed performance in the opera house built for her by her husband. A real opera called Salammbô was written by Philippe Fénelon in 1992.

The renewed interest in Carthage sparked by Salammbô also led to archaeological explorations, some of the results of which are on show in the exhibition, including a terracotta statue of a very well-built Carthaginian soldier, dating from the second or third century BCE, and funerary stelae from a tophet, or cemetery, filled with the cremated remains of children who may have been burned in sacrificial rituals.

An amusing detail: Flaubert changed the spelling of the existing name Salambu for his heroine. The popularity of his novel was such that a city in Tunisia changed its own name to Salambo (seen in photos in the exhibition), returning the novel’s fictional heroine to her homeland.

Salammbô, once so popular in France and around the world, has fallen out of favor and is no longer read by French schoolchildren. At the exhibition, I met two assiduous French journalists who had each bought the novel to read in preparation for seeing the show. Both admitted that they were bored to the point that they were unable to finish it. Seeing this fascinating exhibition may be a better way of experiencing the legend of Salammbô.

Note: While in Rouen, Flaubert fans may also want to visit the Musée Flaubert et d’Histoire de la Médicine, and the city’s numerous other museums. Click here for details. 

The full text of Salammbô is available here in English.

The exhibition “Salammbô” will travel to MUCEM in Marseille (October 20, 2021-February 7, 2022) and to the Musée National du Bardo in Tunis (Spring 2022).  



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