The Rape and Suicide of Lucretia – 2010

ArtThe Rape and Suicide of Lucretia – 2010
Painting addressing the issue of suicide

The Rape and Suicide of Lucretia – 2010

Painting addressing the issue of suicide
Oil on canvas. H84 x W61 cm

As often found in my iconography, I have embedded salient personal issues in a subject drawn from history or mythology. In this case I [re]visited the Rape and Suicide of Lucretia; the act which provoked the overthrow of tyrannical hereditary kings and presaged the establishment of the Roman Republic. In mythic terms Lucretia’s voluntary death was made socially meaningful, as it had a seemingly positive social and political outcome.

The issue I addressed didn’t have anything to do with the martyrdom of Lucretia as the cause célèbre in the creation of the much-feted Roman Republic. Lucretia the victim’s response to the violent male penetration of her body was to voluntarily take her life and also demand her family take revenge for her defilement. That the perpetrator was the son of the tyrant King was coincidental. It turned out to be a convenient excuse to avenge her death and thereby overthrow dynastic autocratic rulers and establish a loose form of democratic rule. That this event was later celebrated as the glorious precipitant for the establishment of the Roman Republic is a perversion. There was no sacrificial glory in this. The rape of women is a common occurrence in time of war and is a crime of violence. It is clearly “aggression as a perversion of male desire.”[1]

In later imperial Rome there was no cultural stigma attached to voluntary death – quite the contrary, suicide was considered an honourable social exit. But honour associated with voluntary death as a chivalric means of cancelling a social debt, or in the Japanese Kamikaze pilots’ patriotic suicide, is a far cry from Lucretia’s response to the violence perpetrated on her.

In our contemporary Western culture, we do not apportion a positive spin on, or attach positive meaning to, voluntary death. The individual’s choice to decide and act is subordinated to legal determination of criminal culpability and an undesirable social effect on those left behind.

I envisaged the very private but highly-charged emotional state Lucretia must have experienced in her “inclination to death” as “the only posture to the burden of being”[2] – via a permanent erasure of her life. In planning my rendering of Lucretia, I therefore backtracked to the moments before Lucretia took her life rather than depict the actual or the theatrical impending act, as in most previous traditional renditions. At times we are all in a state of despair or at crossroads that veritably change our being.

In my rendering Lucretia in extremis is depicted naked, having discarded her clothes. She has, in her desolate mental state roughly scraped or cut-off her hair and has lost one shoe. I took great care in the arrangement of the awkwardly seated and contorted body, paying particular attention to the hands, as well as the positioning of the knife. The hands and knife indicate indecision and are not quite what we would expect if Lucretia had already taken the decision to kill herself. She is positioned seated well-forward, hardly supported by the elegant but fragile chair – her only connection left to this world. Her head is tucked-in in intense internal contemplation on her imminent act of self-destruction. The sprung position of the body squeezed onto the canvas enhances the explosive tension of the impending scenario.

Although she had indicated to her father and brother that she was indeed determined to suicide, she is here understandingly portrayed hesitating at the edge of the abyss.

As pictorial props, I used an actual ancient bronze short sword from Luristan (modern day Iran) circa 1200 BCE of which I am the custodian, as well as a single shoe borrowed from my wife Kira. A sensible flat shoe it was made by a New Zealand footwear company then called Kumfs (now Ziera). When Kira noticed her shoe on Lucretia she exclaimed light-heartedly with punning insight, “but, that’s my Kumf!”

[1] Joanna Bourke, Rape in the Art of War, in War and Art Ed. Joanna Bourke (London: Reaktion Books, 2017), 316
[2] On Suicide – A Discourse on Voluntary Death, Jean Améry, Trans. by John D. Barlow, Indiana University press, 1999, p150

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