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The Sphinx at the Musee d’Orsay

We all know that feeling of creeping dread when a powerful person poses a tough question to us and we just don’t know the answer. You can bluff and bluster, smile politely or swallow hard and shrink in a confession of ignorance. Whatever course you take, your social embarrassment is likely to be horribly intense. But look on the merciful and bright side: at least you were not eaten by your interrogator.

The Sphinx at Paris’s Musee d’Orsay gives flight to the imagination…

The Art of Otherworldliness

The same mercy was not granted to the victims of the sphinx. No, not the serene-looking, wonder of the world Egyptian variety of sphinx. We’re talking about the sphinx of classical Greek mythology, an altogether more lethal proposition. Often portrayed with the head and upper body of a woman, the haunches and tail of a lion and the wings of a bird of prey, the sphinx would pose a riddle to lonesome travellers on the isolated road outside the city of Thebes. Failure to immediately answer the riddle correctly led to the traveller being murdered and eaten by the sphinx. Now, that really is a historic fate considerably worse than today’s feelings of mere social awkwardness.

The persona of the Greek sphinx – that is to say, of a mysterious, merciless, murderous and cannibalistic female – has been the enthralling subject of varied artistic depictions by male artists over several thousand years. There’s probably a PhD thesis in psychology awaiting the investigation of that particular phenomenon.

Owing to the striking physical attributes of the Greek sphinx, it has attracted many three-dimensional artistic portrayals – meaning sculptures, sometimes monumental in scale. But perhaps the most chilling and unsettling portrayal of all is one that is actually quite small, at only 46 cm x 39 cm (18 inches x 15 inches). It was created in 1902 by a highly imaginative Polish artist, Boleslas Biegas, who after training in Warsaw and Cracow produced his astonishing works in Paris over the next five decades.

Biegas’s portrayal of the sphinx is not even what we would normally expect of a sculpture: it is not three dimensional in the conventional sense: you cannot walk around it and explore it from all angles. It is a hybrid form, comprising elements of sculpture and of bas (meaning low) relief, cast in plaster. That’s right: despite appearances, this sphinx is not chiselled from stone but is set from liquid in a mould.

What Biegas has captured in his artwork would appear to be that deathly silent, anxious moment when the sphinx has posed her riddle to the hapless traveller. As we can see, the fingers in her hands are entwined under her chin, in a gesture of ‘waiting’ for an inevitably inadequate answer – and a human meal.

We, too, are experiencing the brief instant before the ferocity of the sphinx is unleashed in sudden bloody murder, dismemberment and feasting. For what we can also see is that the very deep-set eyes of the sphinx are fixed directly upon us as the individual viewer and, by extension, as her next victim. The gaunt, hollowed-out, corpse-like cheeks and the lifeless, thin lips tell us that we are in the presence of an inescapable agent of death. The impression is amplified by the bony, creased brow and forehead, along with the suggestion of a cowl that we might speculate is associated with another relentless figure of human extermination, the Grim Reaper.

Biegas’s mesmerising and compelling work of art – The Sphinx – can be viewed at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. Many of his other paintings and sculptures can be viewed at the Musée Boleslas Biegas located within the Polish Library in Paris. Founded in 1838, it is in the heart of Paris on the Ile Saint-Louis, alongside the River Seine. The Library’s collection consists of 200,000 volumes, including circa 50 incunables and a few thousand antique books. The archive houses 5,000 manuscripts. The collection also includes 25 thousand drawings and prints, 15 thousand photographs, almost 1,500 paintings, 1,000 posters, 600 medals and coins and 350 sculptures. The library is open to the public Tuesday and Thursday afternoons.

By Brad Allan, writer and wine tasting host in Melbourne, Australia and frequent visitor to France…

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