The films we screen at the Getty go hand in hand with the art on view. Curating film series related to exhibitions is exciting, but it can also be challenging. How, for example, do you plan a movie event around a Japanese lacquer box? By connecting with a story—scenes from The Tale of Genji—that adorn the box.
This weekend’s free four-film series, The Ornament and The Enchantress, accompanies the new exhibition The Spectacular Art of Jean-Léon Gérome. To get ideas for the series, I met with Mary Morton and Scott Allan, curators of the exhibition, who discussed pictures they would be showing. Grand, theatrical, impeccably detailed, Gérôme’s paintings draw us in with their detailed narratives.
I was taken with Gérôme’s eroticism, in particular his paintings of women who appear mostly nude, secretly attentive to the viewer’s gaze. To me the most intriguing paintings are those inspired by Turkish harem scenes: here you have the beauty of the female form, soft and pillowy, matched with the exquisite colors, textures, and beauty of Middle Eastern architecture. The women are simultaneously seductive and innocently naïve, naked and captive, real and imaginary.
This romanticized Orientalism found its way into films: European-looking women playing Semitic characters, clothed in bangles and headdresses with much more exposed flesh than their Northern sisters would ever allow. Fantastic women, whose carnal powers were strong enough to bring their enemies to their knees.
Picking up this theme, the series celebrates so-called femmes fatales and includes two of the sexiest over-the-top Cecil B. DeMille spectacles, Cleopatra and Samson and Delilah, as well as the silent gem Salome (with live musical accompaniment), plus Greta Garbo in peak form as Mata Hari, erotic dancer turned courtesan turned spy.
We don’t know the fate of the women in Gérôme’s paintings (some are seen being sold as slaves), but in this film series we do—the notorious Salome, Delilah, Cleopatra and Mata Hari pay the ultimate price. But those girls sure put on a good show before they go.