04-17-2003, 04:42 PM
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Saddam's taste in art.
Rogue's gallery of blonde bombshells
April 18 2003
One of Saddam's fantasy paintings features dragons and pneumatic women.
The paintings hanging in Saddam's palaces show a mind obsessed with sex and violence, writes Jonathan Jones.
It is all satisfyingly horrendous - almost the smoking gun. The paintings of naked blonde maidens menaced by dragons and trolls, warriors wrestling serpents and a wet dream of missiles that have been found in Saddam Hussein's palaces and love shack feel like proof of something. They appear to reflect the man's authentic pleasures and interests or, at the very least, the culture of Saddam's court.
That's certainly how the photographs make it seem. In lieu of American soldiers posed next to chemical warheads, we have an American soldier contemplating a mural of massed rockets framed in an arched recess between purple marble columns in one of Saddam's Baghdad palaces. We may not yet have found weapons of mass destruction - but just look at this proof of the dictator's execrable sensibility.
The downfall of dictators is always somehow tinged with pathos. You think of the Emperor Nero on the brink of his suicide, proclaiming insanely, "What an artist I die!", or Hitler in his bunker studying a model of the ideal Nazi city as the Russians advanced through Berlin. Poor aesthetic judgement is an archetypal part of this wretchedness - all that vulgarity exposed.
The art in Saddam's palaces is the embodiment of ideas and appetites and, as such, it is not really that funny. The erotic art is particularly recognisable as the sort of thing you'd see in Hitler's private collection - right down to the Aryan types. One of Hitler's favourite paintings was Paul Mathias Padua's Leda and the Swan, with a German maiden about to be penetrated by a Wagnerian swan.
But Saddam is less elevated in his taste than Hitler. The Fuehrer was more pretentious: Leda and the Swan is a classical myth. By contrast, there are no high cultural allusions whatsoever in the Saddamite paintings. They're certainly not Islamic - in early medieval Iraq the brilliant art of the Abbasids included splendid palaces with figurative decorations celebrating the pleasures of the ruler: hunting, food, music. There's not much that is culturally embedded about his taste in paintings.
They are from the universal cultural gutter. They look spraypainted, in a rampant hyperbolic style where all men are muscular, all women have giant breasts and missiles are metal cocks. These are art for the barely literate, or the barely sentient, dredged from some red-lit back alley of the brain.
And what are those monsters in the erotic paintings? For a start, it's difficult to see that they are necessarily depicted as enemies. The viewer identifies with them. A dragon descends on a defenceless naked woman, the movement and force of the picture makes the dragon the male sexual actor, as in the image of Leda and the Swan. In the painting of a male warrior fighting a snake while a big-breasted woman on an altar touches the end of its tail, it's not so much a rescue going on as a psychic breakdown - the warrior isn't going to "liberate" anyone with his sword. (See picture on Page 15)
Looking at these paintings is like seeing the owner naked.
"Embarrassing" isn't the word. They seem to represent a systematic style and therefore a sensibility. The hysterical aesthetic, the hyperpornography of power and violence which does not just seem coincidence.
And if this is the authentic taste of Saddam, it is that of a man who seems on this evidence to have lived according to aestheticised, eroticised violence for which no one has yet come up with a better word than "fascism".
Jonathan Jones writes about art for The Guardian