Odalisque or Obelisk?


You can get into a lot of trouble if you aren’t careful with long words. I have often invited people back to see my Odalisque when I really meant Obelisk. I suspect some of my visitors were highly disappointed when they saw a simple garden structure rather than a voluptuous naked woman but then obelisks have their beauty too even if they don’t have quite the same erotic charge as an Odalisque, the Sultan’s favourite concubine in a harem filled with beautiful women.

La Grande Odalisque is a painting by one of my favourite artists, Ingres (1780-1867), who outraged the first viewers of this picture by the unnatural elongation of the nude’s body as an expressive device which has been much argued over ever since. Needless to say Ingres’ Odalisque has intrigued and seduced ever since her unveiling in 1814. She is unembarrassed in her nudity but her expression shows her ambiguity to her role as the Sultan’s possession. I always felt she was looking for love and rescue from an exotic prison. Go to see her in the Louvre in Paris next time you are there – she is just as beguiling as the more commonly visited Mona Lisa.

My obelisk however is a more down-to-earth creation but today it sits in my garden in a similar state of nakedness as Ingres’ great nude. My obelisk has been stripped of her clothing of sweet peas which have been clambering around her elongated and attractively rusted structure all summer.

I have been trying to decide what to do with my odalisque, woops, obelisk, after a certain boredom with sweet peas set in this year. I have been growing them every year for so long I had just assumed that I would just carry on. I have toyed with the idea of putting summer and winter flowering jasmines there instead but my seed catalogue has just arrived and I am tempted back into the world of sweet peas. What do you think?

The obelisk will stay whatever I decide because it is also the favourite perch for the beautiful Odonata Zygoptera, the damselfly.


Like their larger cousins the dragonfly, damselflies fly around my garden in summer with the sunlight refracting like kaleidoscopes from their wings. I have had a companion damselfly in the garden every day this year and I have grown to identify her with Ingres’ Grande Obalisque – a delicate, melancholy, long-bodied and alluring exotic. Whenever she stopped her balletic dance between my climbing roses, she headed for her favourite position on the top of the obelisk.

Damselflies begin their lives in the water as nymphs – water larvae not the beautiful water spirits of classical mythology – so I have always thought of my damselfly as Odette, the water spirit turned swan in Swan Lake. Not only is she beautiful though she also eats mosquitoes so she is doubly welcome.

She is, in fact, just as helpful as the loyal Horace, my favourite spider who weaves his web across the back of my house everyday and busily rebuilds it every time I have to walk through its silky strands. Horace is a master insect killer so in many ways he is a kindred spirit to Odette, my odalisque. Mythology is full of stories about how the beautiful nymph and a romantic male satyr fall in love usually with tragic consequences for the nymph.

It was just as true here in my garden. This morning, on my way to the dustbin, I saw the final moments of Odette’s brief but glorious life. Maybe I have been listening to Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde too much because I couldn’t help but see something romantic in this brutal and fatal coupling. Just as Isolde sings in her famous Liebestod (Love Death) so might Odette have thought as she was wrapped helplessly in Horace’s voluptuous web:

To expire in sweet perfume
in the surging swell,
in the ringing sound,
in the vast wave of the world’s breath –
to drown, to sink unconscious – supreme bliss!


Tchaikovsky too would have been inspired by this scene and seen in it one last great pas de deux. Horace, of course was just having his breakfast. If you think I should avenge Odette’s death then maybe I should send Horace to one of those tropical islands where a large species of damselfly eats spiders. I won’t of course because Horace too is my friend.

But what should I do with my obelisk?

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