A student of beauty

UIS professor Rosina Neginsky’s new book explores images of a woman who “never was”

A student of beauty
Dr. Rosina Neginsky in her Paris apartment.
Dr. Rosina Neginsky in her Paris apartment.
Some philosophers and psychologists think we are “hardwired for beauty”: it “inspires and motivates us.”

Rosina Neginsky has spent her lifetime learning about, experiencing and understanding beauty, and the role of beauty in reflecting the values of cultures across time and across political and geographic landscapes.

The granddaughter of Russian intellectuals, Neginsky was introduced to music, literature and the most important Russian art at an early age. In the 1970s, amid the turmoil of the Cold War, her grandparents and parents with a young Rosina fled Russia to settle in Meudon, France, between Paris and Versailles. There, Neginsky lived with her family among a community of art and culture aficionados where she was allowed to listen in on “conversations,” she said in her charming Russian-French accent. Those conversations on art, history and theology, took hold of her and ultimately influenced the direction of her life.

Now an award-winning associate professor of interdisciplinary studies and comparative literature who has been at University of Illinois Springfield for 15 years, Neginsky has explored beauty historically, culturally, politically and aesthetically. She has studied how society’s conceptions of what is beautiful have changed over time, how a culture’s value of beauty changes over time, and what those values mean in terms of how people operate within a culture.

When asked to explain what “beauty” is, exactly, Neginsky responded: “The beauty I am able to perceive should be something that connects me as an artist to other people and others to me. Listen to Beethoven. If one has a soul, he would react to that. Look at a work of art in which the art is good: Art expresses and presents ‘the beauty.’ It will touch you.”

In her formal education as well as through her life experiences, Neginsky was deeply affected by Symbolism, an important late 19th- and early 20th-century art movement of especially France, England, Germany and Russia. While difficult to define, Symbolism can be understood as the use of symbols in art, poetry, literature and music to create meaningful, even mystical, images of the world. Symbolism’s beginnings can be traced back to pre-Renaissance painters and writers, 18th-century English mystics, and romantic poets. The movement subsequently fostered the development of such great artists as Pablo Picasso and Gustav Klimt, among many others. But Neginsky’s intellectual and artistic exploration of Symbolism led her to Zinaida Vengerova – and her first book, published in 2006.

In Zinaida Vengerova: In Search of Beauty, Neginsky describes the intellectual life and contributions of an important but ultimately forgotten Russian woman, Zinaida Vengerova, in turn-of-the-20th-century Russian, French, German and English art circles. In this book, Neginsky considers Vengerova’s nontraditional role as a woman literary critic, translator and journalist, who realized the richness and cultural value of Russian and European art and literature. Neginsky argues that Vengerova’s importance to the art community transcends the bounds of her time by establishing socially and politically safe spaces for Symbolist artists and writers, including artist Jean Moreas who coined the term “Symbolism,” and poets such as Stéphane Mallarmé, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot and playwright Oscar Wilde, who wrote Salome, a play based on Symbolist Gustav Moreau’s painting The Apparition, and which would influence Neginsky’s research later.  

“However,” said Neginsky, “since Vengerova’s emigration from Russia in 1923 and after the turmoil of the Russian Revolution, no one has seriously attempted to understand Vengerova’s contributions to the culture or her role as an ambassador between West and East.” As a result, Neginsky’s work in In Search of Beauty is important for the historical and cultural contexts it develops about Vengerova as a historical figure, and about Symbolist philosophy and art. Neginsky’s research here seems to inform the bulk of her intellectual and creative efforts still today.

In fact, Neginsky’s expertise in Symbolism led her to found the international organization Art, Literature, Music in Symbolism and Decadence. With Neginsky at the helm, the ALMSD and the University of Illinois sponsored two international conferences at the Allerton Center in Monticello, Ill., with a third planned at the Sorbonne in Paris in June 2015. Neginsky’s scholarship and energy created this well-respected organization, one of the few that publishes scholarly inquiry into Symbolism.

Her ability to illuminate the context in which beauty – its very definition, the social, cultural and even political fabric surrounding it, and the many kinds of value it holds – makes Neginsky’s ideas interesting and challenging: “Real beauty in art is the beauty of the world for which the artist speaks,” she said in an interview. “How it appears in the outside expression is the means to convey [it] in such a way it would ‘talk,’ and create a response in people who see, read or listen.” In other words, beauty exceeds mere prettiness: beauty touches the soul of the beholder.

Neginsky’s philosophy of beauty – art that incites a reaction – is applied throughout her most recent book, Salome: The Image of a Woman Who Never Was. In it, Neginsky analyzes the biblical story (see Matthew 14:1-12, and Mark 6:14-29) of an unnamed girl who is thought to be the daughter of Herodias, second wife of the tetrarch Herod Antipas. The girl whose name may have been Salome danced at the banquet of her stepfather, King Herod. As a result of her dance, King Herod offered Salome a reward of anything she wanted, even “half the kingdom.” Her mother, Herodias, said she should ask for John the Baptist’s head on a platter. Herod Antipas obliged.    

The problem is, according to Neginsky, that “Salome” never existed, yet, despite the order from King Herod and the men who followed it, she has been blamed for the past 2,000 years for the beheading of John the Baptist.

In her research, Neginsky learned of multiple girls and women in antiquity named Salome. What, then, is the real story of “Salome,” whose powers could corrupt men of all stations? That question piqued Neginsky’s scholarly interest, and, she discovered, the interests of thousands of artists for thousands of years, including Symbolist artists and writer Oscar Wilde, who are included in Neginsky’s analyses.

Salome: The Image of a Woman Who Never Was is an important study in which Neginsky does at least two essential things: First, she rebuts the age-old story of Salome-the-evil-temptress, refutes it at its very core, by proving that it was culturally impossible for a 13- or 14-year-old girl, especially a princess, to perform at a banquet in front of a male audience. Yet, the girl is blamed for manipulating adult men into committing a heinous crime. In proving such an argument, Neginsky exposes the story of Salome and the blame that has been assigned to her for millennia as a misogynist Christian text.

However, and here is the second essential thing and the real purpose of the book: Once she proves the biblical story’s historical and cultural inaccuracy (and reviews the assertion by other scholars that this story in particular served as a “dramatic device” for what was the equivalent of an early Harlequin Romance novel), she rescues that same myth by mapping Salome’s images across the landscape of our cultural history.

In so doing, Neginsky demonstrates how Salome’s depiction evolves visually, along with social and cultural values: as a seductive monster matched only by the likes of Eve; an innocent; a willful girl; and in love. Neginsky explains: “Sometimes ideology, in process of being created, uses images to reinforce itself. How each period used images of Salome created and reinforced its ideology through art, literature, history and theology.”

She notes the political changes of the late 19th century in particular: “…in response to women’s growing claims for equality, [Salome] became an independent figure, often represented without reference to the Baptist.” In other words, Neginsky argues that women’s increasing social, political and economic independence from men in the 19th century resulted in Salome’s depiction as a real and whole person on her own, with a valid existence separate from John the Baptist, to whom she had been tied for eternity. Neginsky asserts that these late-19th-century changes in the artistic rendering of Salome clearly reflected larger ideological changes in the culture.

In a recent lecture, Neginsky said Salome has been depicted in more than 3,000 different ways in the 19th century alone, and through many different kinds of media across the ages – mosaics, terra cotta tiles, bronze castings, marble sculptures and luminous paintings. Only some of the many thousands of images can be discussed in Neginsky’s book.

But Salome is more than a mere survey of art: it provides an analysis of the archetypal Western-Christian myths of woman – the saint, the temptress and the redeemed – as documented in images of Salome. In so doing, it provides a political analysis, as well. “The idea,” she said, “was to see how culture uses different images in order to create history. How images [determine] how we will create history; how images are manipulated to create mentality.”

As Neginsky argues in Salome, all of these images and all of these stories are told in the art of Salome, ultimately telling the story of how Westerners became, culturally and ideologically, who we are.

Neginsky is able to make such connections between art, literature and history in part because doing so lies at the core of her personal history. Further, she embodies her construction of beauty by creating poetry, of which she has published two books. As a poet and scholar, Neginsky has a responsibility to question the status quo, to use language and research in potentially uncomfortable ways, but ways that incite a response. She does this in both her scholarly publications and her creative ones.

“Beauty is not purely aesthetic,” she said. “You might hate it,” she said, “but it will always awaken a reaction in the viewer. The reaction could be negative or positive, but never indifference.”

An itinerant culture and history buff, Amy Spies of Chatham raises two Millennials, teaches and writes.

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