RM has a little box, 4 inches wide, 8 long and 5.5 inches tall, made of “composite.” The medium is not wood, not gesso, not plaster, but a combination of all three, pressed into a mold. On the very top of the box is a beautiful naked woman, seductively lying on a seabed. “What is this?” RM wants to know. She says it “called” to her, 20 years ago, in an antique shop in Missouri, and she answered the call with $75.
Originally, boxes like this were used to hold celluloid collars, and were enjoyed by men as they chose their (detachable) collar for their daily dress shirts. That’s why the box is 8” long, the length of a doubled- over collar.
Looking into the decorative motifs molded into the box, we see swordfish, coral, starfish, kelp, fish of all kinds, octopi, the female cast in celluloid. Why this “ocean” iconography?
RM, the box “called to you” because the lady on the top is no lady, she’s a siren. She’s not a mermaid, she has legs, and mermaids do not call to people. Mermaids are generally nice creatures, sirens are not. Sirens are dangerous, and sailors were lured to their deaths when following their beautiful, irresistible calls.
Remember Odysseus (Ulysses) who wanted to hear – first hand – the siren’s song? He bade his men tie him to his ship’s mast, and plugged his mates’ ears with wax. Homer tells us Odysseus struggled to join the bewitching sirens.
RM’s box dates from the late 19th century. when one of the few ways a man could enjoy a nude was to mythologicalize her. He then enjoyed a moral lesson along with his pleasure: female beauty is dangerous, corrupting, tantalizing. As long as female nudity was a lesson to be learned, such an objet d’art was socially sanctioned.
A painted by the young artist William Etty, called “The Sirens and Ulysses” was gifted in the mid 19th century to the Royal Manchester Institution. It had remained unsold because people considered it too decadent. The scene shows three white-bodied nudes, singing and waving to Ulysses’ ship; the nudes are perched upon the decaying bodies of vanquished sailors. Etty was accused of going too far; called indecent, because he painted his sirens as contemporary women. Gone was the usual Greek draping. Gone was the traditional Greek bird-woman imagery. These sirens looked just like the siren on RM’s box, a real woman.
Designed for a man’s dresser, circa 1880, this box would both remind and warn a young man that females are seductive and dangerous. The moral: “stick with nice girls!”
From this long tradition of the beleaguered feminine comes the very definition of the “Siren Song.” That song is beckoning, utterly mesmerizing. A man has no power but to stay far away from such temptation.
The great novelist and poet Margaret Atwood’s poem "Siren Song" says it best:
This is the one song everyone
would like to learn: the song
that is irresistible.
The song that forces men
to leap overboard in squadrons
even though they see the bleached skulls.
The song nobody knows
because anyone who has heard it
is dead, and the other’s can’t remember.
Shall I tell you the secret
and if I do, will you get me…
[off] this island,
looking picturesque and mythical…
I will tell the secret to you,
to you, only to you.
Come closer. This song
is a cry for help: Help me!
Only you, only you can,
you are unique –
at last. Alas
it is a boring song
but it works every time.
This poem deals with both the languid and lonely life of the beautiful siren on her island, and the conquering wiles of her calls for help. A favorite myth of the mid 19th century, images of the siren featured in both high and low culture. This box would have been considered low culture because instead of a precious metal medium, this is made of “composite,” cheap and machine made. The introduction of celluloid for the nude is a low culture substitution for ivory. This box wasn't expensive when produced in the late 19th century.
But what a story, told in the middle of Victorian approbation of sex and sensuality. The box is a great example of the uses of Classic Greek art and story to make something taboo acceptable. If ancient Homer wrote it, the subject was okay for the mid-19th century. RM, your sea-siren box is indeed a treasure box, and worth $300.
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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