"Dance of the Prisoners," Mariette Lydis (1936)
Dance of the Prisoners
Mariette Lydis was an Austrian-Argentine painter and printmaker in the early 20th century. She was well known for her moody portraits, often portraying the subjects as anxious or in a dream-like state. This print is part of a series of fifteen lithographs created by the artist, based on the satirical ballad opera written by writer John Gay entitled, “The Beggar’s Opera.” The Dance of the Prisoners depicts a large group of inmates crammed into a room, underneath a wooden beam with a rope hanging around it. This room could be interpreted as a prison cell or a factory, and some of the men have a ball and chain attached to their ankles, which indicates that they are forced into labor. Leaning on each other as in a choreographed dance, the prisoners pull back as if shying away from something. Despite their uniformity, each man exhibits a different facial expression, one seems sleepy, another expectant, while others appear to be curious, sad, and scared. The print could be interpreted as a response to the hanging of American inmate Rainey Bethea on August 14, 1936, later to be recognized as the last public execution in America. The subject matter of this print also reflects Lydis’ own personal struggles as a bisexual Jewish woman who fled Europe during the first years of Nazi occupation.