In the sculpture gallery of the Victoria and Albert Museum there is a marble sculpture of an “Athlete Wrestling with a Python” by the Victorian Near East traveller, artist and president of the Royal Academy Frederic Lord Leighton. The sculpture is a variation of the classic theme of Laocoön and his sons. The Leighton figure liberates the idea of wrestling with the snake from its aspect of gruesome divine punishment. The athlete appears to be mastering or conquering the snake rather than being overcome by it. The snake winds itself around the athlete who holds its gaping mouth at arm’s length. The athlete’s figure and pose emerge from the classic theme of Laocoön but is now infused with a new ‘dynamic naturalism’. At the time the work was considered the onset of a ‘renaissance’ in British sculpture called the New Sculpture. Leighton’s ‘Athlete’ is no longer the mythical doomed Trojan priest of Poseidon – he is a generic athlete wrestling with a generic snake, which has not been sent across the sea by a god but just happens to him in nature. Generic is a key to naturalism as opposed to the mythical. Fascism’s mythology is paradoxical being generic and mythical at the same time.
Still, the athlete has not yet conclusively subdued the serpent. “Serpens nisi serpentem comederit non fit draco” (Serpent must swallow serpent to become a dragon) does not seem likely. Everything is rather in abeyance, undecided. The athlete does not hold up the head of the snake in the triumphant pose of a Theseus with the Minotaur’s head or a Perseus with the head of the Medusa. It is a mere contest – and one he might lose. About his expression and bulging neck veins is a hint of desperation. He is not a founder-hero. One is tempted to see this ‘new naturalism’ as a sign of Victorian imperial uncertainty. The empire – the snake – is unpredictable in its movements. Following the wave of revolutions on the continent in 1848 and the “Indian Mutiny” in 1857-59 the British Empire was seen as vulnerable to internal and external forces.
Leighton seems to have been tempting the devil - using the iconography of Laocoön as the ‘template’ for a new imperial mythology. Victoria had crowned herself Empress of India in 1877 – in the same year “Athlete Wrestling with a Python” was first exhibited. Victoria had been an early patroness of Leighton, he sold his first painting to her. He was knighted in 1878 at Windsor. Victorian artists were not autonomous – they were empire artists, promoting the cult of imperial grandeur and dynastic infinitude.
Why though did Leighton choose a mythical armature for his naturalist athlete whose theme is so intimately connected to total disaster – the fall of Troy? One wonders if this was a case of hubris or an unconscious portent of the end of empire - at its seeming pinnacle. Five years after Victoria assumed the title of Empress of India, Britain invaded and occupied Egypt, to protect the ‘gateway to India’. The map of Leighton’s travels shows his frequent movement between the four empires ruling the ‘East’ at that time – Britain, France, Turkey, Persia. But he certainly would have been aware of John Ruskin’s menacing comparisons of the ‘great powers’ Tyre, Venice and Britain and the dire warning with which he begins “Stones of Venice”: “Since first the dominion of men was asserted over the ocean, three thrones, of mark beyond all others, have been set up upon its sands: the thrones of Tyre, Venice and England. Of the First of these great powers only the memory remains; of the Second, the ruin; the Third, which inherits their greatness, if it forget their example may be led through prouder eminence to less pitied destruction.” Perhaps Leighton’s generic Laocoön was a gesture of defiance towards the myth of doomed power and its looming possibility? Or was it a staid Victorian predecessor to the Nazi-Wagner cult of Götterdämmerung and Valhalla?
Besides his Arab Hall in “Leighton House”, Holland Park London, Frederic Lord Leighton is renowned for having had the shortest peerage in the history of hereditary peerages. He was made a Lord in 1896. One day later he died of angina pectoris. As he was unmarried the Barony was extinguished. His peerage lasted one day.