In today’s post, I’d like to spend some words on a charming and oddly disturbing artwork. It is Giulio Aristide Sartorio’s Mermaid (1893), now exhibited at Turin’s GAM. I first saw the painting roughly six months ago, during a fascinating exhibition in Milan. Titled “Il Simbolismo”, it delved into the vast and obscure abyss of symbolist art around the end of the Nineteenth century. At that time, the highest human aspirations and the lowest bodily impulses melted into a new visual code. Instead of being presented with ready-made truths, the viewer faces a complex visual puzzle. The artist communicates through his senses, and there is not an exact, immediate reading of the work of art. It is hidden, often complex, and the sensual quality of the work of art is the path to it.

Sartorio’s Mermaid acts in the same way. He depicts a mythological scene, a trope, as mermaids are connected to the death of sailors since Homer’s Odyssey. However, his aim is not illustrating a mythological scene. First, it is not a passage from a specific piece of literature. Second, the characters are not specifically identified and we do not know their identities. He rather provides archetypes. On the one hand, the mermaid is a beautiful woman, but she is actually a disguised monster. The human remainings on the bottom-left corner prove how dangerous she is, and how she is using her beauty to attract the sailor in a deadly trap. The victim, on the other hand, is an anonymous figure, another man falling victim of her fatal attractiveness. Sartorio does not linger on his facial traits, and his head is partially reclining. The viewer is not supposed to wonder about who that young, energic man might be. A youth, whose potential will never blossom in adulthood, that’s all we are supposed to guess.

Sartorio is conveying a message on the risks of beauty and seduction. In the trial of temptation, our eyes are focused on the innocent beauty of the woman. The bare, scary bones left by the sailor’s predecessors are almost hidden and we struggle to notice them, at first. In this regard, Sartorio’s mermaid easily conforms to the symbolist trope of the femme fatale. It is typical of late Nineteenth-century art to regard the woman as an obscure, dangerous force. She attracts men into her net and eventually disrupt their lives, becoming a tireless obsession. The figure of Angiolina in Svevo’s famous novel, Senilit√†, is the cynical evolution of this almost exoteric figure. She exploits the inept protagonist, leading him to lose any contact with his family and the world around him. She does not even care about him, but yet she has full control and leads him to a grim finale.

Visually, Sartorio highlights the inevitable capitulation of the male character. The composition is built horizontally, with the figures arranged as a continuous diagonal. The sailor moves from the top-right corner of the canvas to the centre, his head heading toward the woman. Therefore, the viewer has the impression he is falling into the water from the ship, which dangerously slips below his naked body. The water delicately moves, leaving no perception of the fight, of the struggle that will soon follow. Rather, we witness the calm before the tempest rises, although the strong verticality of the composition foresees that. The feeling of uncertainty and lack of balance is a subtle consideration on the man’s destiny.

In conclusion, symbolism draws the viewer into an aesthetic experience. He is compelled to feel the painting, rather than seeing it only, as this is the key to its meaning. Refined and complex conceits are likely to be hidden throughout, but at the same time they are not presented as such. Rather, the painter portrays them in sensible manifestations, set before the spectator who is asked to decipher the rebus. They should tease, intellectually and visually.


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Alessandro M. Rubin Written by:

Cambridge History of Art alumnus. Passionate early-modernist, curious about contemporary art and aesthetic theory.

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