Tragic Musings

A woman is seated on the left, one strap of her robe falling off her shoulder. A red streak mars her pale gown as a white dot of paint on her left eye provides a window into her sorrow: it is a tear catching the light, threatening to roll down her cheek. This painting, Benjamin West’s “Paetus and Arria” tells the story of Paetus, a Roman aristocrat who is sentenced to death by a manner of his choosing. Weary of his hesitation, his wife, Arria, stabs herself first and hands him the bloodied dagger, saying “non dolet”: “it doesn’t hurt.”

This tableau is one of the pieces in the Smart Museum of Art’s newest exhibition, “The Tragic Muse: Art and Emotion, 1700-1900.” The subject matter of West’s painting is standard for this show. As the pamphlet explains, these works were selected for their ability to “serve as a powerful vehicle for exploring darker emotions, such as fear, sadness, and grief.” The paintings and sculptures on display are divided into four subcategories: Fate and Tragedy, Tragic Actors and Actresses, Solitude and Melancholy, and Grief and Sentiment.

The works adorning the walls represent these categories in diverse styles and traditions so that neoclassical and expressionist paintings occupy the same space. The exhibition is not  drawn from any particular movement but seeks instead to present the viewer with general images of sorrow and anger, chronicling  human pain.

Theater is also a central theme to the exhibit, as suggested by the title. The term “tragic muse” was first coined by Joshua Reynolds in  1784, who painted the celebrated Shakespearean actress Sarah Siddons. George  Romney’s “Siddonian Recollections” depicts Sarah Siddons in the role of Lady Macbeth. The painting presents three versions of her face, all of which are disconnected from the actress’s body. The faces are almost ludicrous in their grotesquerie: bodiless heads, rendered in scant detail, float before a brown background. Their hair is wild and tangled, swirling above their furrowed brows and gaping mouths. Judging from the loose brush strokes and almost cartoonish expressions, Romney was more concerned with evoking Lady Macbeth’s crazed fervor than providing a lifelike representation of Siddons.

The Solitude and Melancholy wing of the exhibit is home to more intimate scenes, an understated complement to the grandiose tableaux of Roman heroes and stage actresses in other sections of the exhibition. Edvard Munch’s woodcut Melancholy III, for example, depicts a bleak, pastoral landscape shrouded in ribbons of black cloud. A fleshy figure sits in the foreground, head resting in hand. The image is of Jappe Nilssen, the artist’s friend, as he stares wistfully at his mistress on a boat ride with her husband. To the right of Munch’s work is a compositional analogue: Auguste Rodin’s “The Thinker.” This sculpture endows the image of man with his head in his hand with heavier symbolism–it is an illustration of one’s personal torment, a bold embodiment of inner anguish.

Opposite the Rodin is “Vision,” by the Symbolist Odilon Redon. This black pastel features a near-formless white figure staring into a dark tunnel. The lines and contours of Redon’s imagined world have been scraped and blurred into abstraction, leaving the lone figure a ghostly portal of light contemplating the darkness that surrounds him. This view of private torment contrasts with works like Joshua Hargrave Sams Mann’s “The Child’s Grave,” in which a family mourns the death of one of its younger members. Children wrap one another in consoling embraces, their eyes downcast and dark.

The curatorial aim of this exhibition, it seems, is to reveal the formlessness of pain. In the works collected at the Smart, grief, anger, and fear are present in every conceivable scenario. Pain knows no creed, no class, no era–it is an inevitable part of human life, an incurable plague, an ubiquitous muse.

Smart Museum of Art, 5550 S Greenwood Ave. Through June 5. Tuesday-Sunday. (773)702-0200. smart-museum@uchicago.edu