During the end of the 19th century (also known as „Fin-de-Siècle“) Viennese culture and life, as well as moral norms, experienced a drastic change. With influence from notable figures like Freud and Schnitzler, Vienna started to look at sexuality in a different way. More specifically – in female sexuality. The Viennese woman was no longer a weak and quiet being, her image slowly became powerful and even threatening. We can see this in literature, drama and pictorial art. In this essay, I will look namely at the revolutionary interpretation of female sexuality and eroticism in pictorial art. Two of the most notable names that come to mind when speaking of sexuality in Vienna during and shortly after the Fin-de-Siècle are Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele – the former being a mentor and an inspiration to the latter.
With his art and ideas, Gustav Klimt is one of the most notable manifestations of the cultural change in Vienna. Or one may argue that he is rather one of the leaders and one of the initiators of that change. With the formation of the Viennese Secession movement, Klimt and his fellow painters led a revolution in Viennese art and turned the notion of „art“ upside down. The Secession movement, as the name suggests, withdrew itself from the established artists and art movements, and eventually became notably influential and famous, thus irrevocably changing the Viennese culture. Klimt, as the founding member of the Viennese Secession, departed from the use of predominant traditional art principles and adopted the more expressive of Art Nouveau and Symbolism. Adolf Loos said: „all art is erotic“, and Klimt embodies this idea in his art. The contradistinction between Klimt and the then Viennese culture was confirmed when his paintings for the University of Vienna were disdainfully rejected with the argument that they were too explicit, too erotic and even pornographic. They also received negative criticism from the press. Namely in the eroticism and sexuality lies the art revolution that Klimt led. He was known as „the painter of women“ and eventually became most known for his erotic paintings of sensual women, which at the same time are portraited as powerful and even dangerous. Specific for Klimt, this way of portraying women is known as femme fatale which means „fatal woman“. It can be also described as „powerful and alluring woman“. With such paintings, Klimt confronts the observer with the human drive; he represents eroticism and its power coming from the female body and persona, which reminds presumably the male viewer of his own vulnerability. This is one of the reasons for why Klimt was heavily criticized and unaccepted. The Vienna monarchy rejected the movement which Klimt led because it generated fear, uncertainty, rejection, and changed the male self-image. The Monarchy did not like the idea of the femme fatale since it was an idea of an independent, seductive and fearsome woman, and above all, of a woman who does not need a man. Usually, Klimt painted women alone. With a few exceptions (for example The Kiss), there are no men or children in the portraits of women he executed. This adds to the seductiveness of the femme fatale – she is neither a mother nor a wife and in other words, she is available. However, one realizes that this is the case because the femme fatale is dangerous, independent and cannot be contained, so, she is not as available as it seems. She is seductive, but one cannot expect affection from her, and namely, this arouses the male interest. That is why the femme fatale may be one of the most erotic ways in which one can paint a woman. Whether Klimt wanted to be part of a woman’s mind, or just wanted to provoke the Fin-de-Siècle, the femme fatale really acted as a shock to Vienna’s culture.
One of the most notable examples of a femme fatale is Judith and the Head of Holofernes (Figure 1) (also known as Judith I). Painted in 1901, the portrait depicts the biblical character of Judith holding the head of Holofernes. If we are to compare Klimt’s depiction of the biblical narrative to other famous depictions of the same narrative, such as Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes (Figure 2), and Gentileschi’s Judith Slaying Holofernes (Figure 3), we see one major difference in the concept – unlike Caravaggio and Gentileschi, who focus on the act of beheading, Klimt focuses mainly on Judith. In fact, Holofernes’ head is barely visible, placed in the bottom right corner of the painting. It is Judith, the femme fatale, who is the important object in Klimt’s artwork. Holofernes’ head can be easily overlooked as the viewer is drawn to Judith’s licentious eyes and the heavy ornamentation that decorates the canvas, as well as her body. Using gold in the ornamentation of the painting is a reference to the Byzantine elementalism, which can be seen in other paintings from Klimt’s golden period during the 1st decade of 20th century. The use of gold in depicting the femme fatale may suggest two ideas. First, gold glorifies the woman, thus empowering her and depicting her like a queen. If this is true, we can suggest that Klimt uses the image of the femme fatale to praise women and their qualities, as well as showing the viewer their ability to control men. The second idea is that, by using gold, Klimt adds actual value to the femme fatale, thus objectifying her and turning her into a commodity. This may be a reference to Weininger’s theories. Another detail in Judith that also shows the duality of the idea of the femme fatale is Judith’s exposed breasts. This may suggest that Judith is a free, independent woman, and the look in her eyes tells us that she is aware of her seductiveness – seductiveness that can be dangerous. The other interpretation of her breast’s exposure is that Judith is merely a sexual object, embracing the male gaze and showing her body to the viewer. Both interpretations are erotic and intimate, and both sexualize the image of Judith. Klimt seeks to convey her figure as a personification of dangerous, but sensual desire. Judith looks like she invites the (male) viewer, and one can be easily deceived by her look if one does not notice Holofernes’ head in her hands. But even the way she holds his head is gentle, sensual and even erotic. For a moment, one could wish to be in Holofernes’ place, and this is why the femme fatale is, in fact, fatal. Her eroticism threatens men and the male identity since Klimt painted Judith as if she is in „ancient and eternal control of the sexual realm“. Eric Kandel said: “Klimt revealed that the power of women can be downright frightening to men.” As I said, this is maybe one of the main reasons why Klimt was heavily criticized at first – the eroticism in his paintings are not merely a sexual reference; he shows a side of women that is not usually depicted – their power, their ability to control men, their independence and the danger that lies in their unpredictability. Before the second half of the 19th century, Judith was interpreted as a faithful widow and the murder was looked at as a saintly act. However, since the second half of the 19th century, Judith has become the quintessential femme fatale, connecting sex with murder. Starting with a play by Friedrich Hebbel in 1840, cultural productions begin to present Judith as a sexual being, which also becomes the point at which her figure starts taking place in art and literature. The Judith painting also plays an important role in the sexualization of Jewish women. It is speculated that Judith portrays Adele Bloch-Bauer – a wealthy Jewish Viennese woman, of whom Klimt executed a famous portrait (Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I) (Figure 4). Commenting on Judith I, Felix Salten states, “One often encounters such slender, glittering Jewish women and longs to see these decorative, flirtatious and playful creatures suddenly hurled toward a horrid destiny, to detonate the explosive power that flashes in their eyes”. Jane Kalli also says: “Klimt’s artistic realization of the prevalent fantasy of sex with a dark and dangerous Jewess eloquently expressed the comingled strains of misogyny and anti-Semitism that characterized fin-de-siècle thought”.
Another work by Klimt that uses the femme fatale model is Nuda Veritas (Figure 5), which translates as Naked Truth. Painted in 1899, it is one of the first examples of Klimt’s femme fatale. Here, Klimt uses the mythological concept of the naked truth as a naked woman. He portrays her as the „all-determining and all-embracing being“. Metaphorically, the „naked truth“ is an object of desire for men, but it also can be dangerous and harmful because „truth hurts“. Since this is also the main concept for the femme fatale, Klimt decided to embody the naked truth as a naked woman. As the name of the painting suggests, Nuda Veritas exposes her body to the viewer, showing no signs of shame and privacy. Nuda Veritas’ red hair strikes the viewer and suggests both eroticism and threat. Her eyes work in the same way. The broad hips emphasize Nuda Veritas’ fertility and femininity. In the upper part of the painting, we see flowers, especially in the woman’s hair, which could be a reference to passive female sexuality and purity. That is no longer the case if we look at the lower part of the painting. There, we see a snake in Nuda Veritas’ legs. The snake is often understood as a symbol of sin and temptation, especially in a biblical sense. It is also well known that snakes can be dangerous. Their dangerous nature is mainly defined by the fact that they are unpredictable – one could not be sure when the snake will attack. As I explained before, this is also the case with the femme fatale – she is unpredictable and thus dangerous. The femme fatale has a deceptively alluring nature. By depicting Nuda Veritas’ pubic hair, Klimt affirms his aim to show to the viewer the femme fatale‘s femininity and fertility. This also could be read as a revolt against the Kunstlerhaus, as the depiction of pubic hair was considered taboo. The text above the female, which is a quote by Schiller, reads: “If you cannot please everyone through your actions and your artwork, then please the few well. To please the multitude is bad”.  Nuda Veritas holds a mirror pointed at the viewer. Since she is „the naked truth“, this can be interpreted as a message which says that we should seek the truth in ourselves first. The mirror may also promote questioning of the values of time, which is a symptomatic aim of the Secession. Given the erotic character of Klimt’s figure and the context in which it appears, it seems to suggest that Eros is a form of knowledge, and knowledge is a form of Eros. An earlier graphic version of the painting has a quote from Schefer that says: „Truth is fire, and to speak the truth means to radiate and burn.“ In Nuda Veritas, Klimt combines desire and eroticism with threat and danger and portrays women as powerful beings that could be both pleasure and harm for men. The eroticism and sexuality in Klimt’s works often are inseparable from danger and risk, and this is what makes Klimt’s women powerful and unique. The femme fatale is neither merely a sexual object, nor a dangerous enemy. It is something in between and namely, this is the reason why the femme fatale arouses interest and desire in men.
Egon Schiele’s eroticism and sexuality were different. While Klimt focused on the powerful image of the woman, as well as on her sexuality and the danger that surrounds her, Schiele turned to gestural drawing to illuminate a powerful sexuality previously silenced by his male counterparts. Even Klimt silenced this powerful sexuality to some extent since he painted his women as pristine, sleeping beings. It seems like Schiele sought something more provocative and more explicit. Of Schiele, Rudolph Leopold said that „[he] shows himself to be obsessed with sex“. He also says that „his paintings speak of the torment of the loner.“ Another Schiele scholar, Alessandra Comini, writes: „The urgency of Schiele’s early sexual manifestos gave way to traditional voyeurism with which he drew the specific pictures of erotica.“ Now let us look at one of the first examples of powerful sexuality in Schiele’s paintings. Seated Nude (Gertrude Schiele) (Figure 6) depicts the painter’s sister completely naked. Her pose exposes both her breasts and her genitals, but she looks comfortable in her nakedness. There is barely any mystery about her image, aside from the fact that her head is turned left, thus not entirely revealing her face. I believe that her pose suggests that Schiele wanted to focus on her body rather than on her personality and image – in this painting, Gertrude Schiele is merely an object of the male gaze and her body ‘screams’ sexuality and eroticism. However, her body is not idealized – Schiele aimed to focus on the raw and pure sexuality, thus embracing the female beauty as it is. On the female nude, Lynda Nead commented: “The transformation of the female body into the female nude is thus an act of regulation: of the female body and of the potentially wayward viewer whose wandering eye is disciplined by the conventions and protocols of art.” Gertrude’s relaxed and comfortable pose in the painting suggests that she might be actually released from the male gaze. It seems that Schiele gave her freedom, and even though the male viewer of the painting is bound to be the embodiment of the male gaze, it does not seem like she is aware of, or rather concerned about that. In 1910, Schiele also painted Female Nude (Figure 7). The white lines we can see in Seated Nude (Gertrude Schiele) are also present in this painting, however, they are now an electric and erratic halo that surrounds the model’s body. Unlike Gertrude, who was looking away, this model looks at the viewer with an erotic and seductive gaze. Her body is almost fully exposed, she seems to be wearing only stockings which are not focused on, since her legs are cut off from the hips. Her right arm is not depicted, while from the left one we can see only her claw-like hand, which is resting on her chest. Schiele mainly focused on her pubic hair, her breasts, her hips and her facial expression. Namely, these elements of the female body are the most sexualized ones, and we can be sure that, by depicting a woman, Schiele wanted to focus on the eroticism about her. But he still manages to portray her as a woman and not as a mere sexual object. Even when cropping the body of most of its limbs, Schiele still presents a humanization of the nude. Her look and her pose suggest that, like Gertrude, she is comfortable with her nudity and is not concerned about the male gaze. She is aware of her ability to arouse sexual interest in men and she is embracing that ability.
In a drawing from 1910, Schiele breaks the boundaries of the relationship between the artist and the models. Drawing a Nude Model Before a Mirror (Figure 8) shows us a woman standing in front of a mirror and Egon Schiele himself sitting behind her. Depicting women who are being confident and comfortable in their nakedness is an essential element for Schiele’s eroticism. And in this drawing, the model’s pose perfectly shows us her confidence and comfort, as if she likes what she sees in the mirror. Moreover, it looks like she is happy with her role as a model and enjoys being drawn next to the artist himself. While she is the focus of her own gaze, she also catches the viewer’s eye as well. She is unbothered of the fact – on the contrary, she looks like she wants to be looked at and she shows this with the boldness of her pose. The drawing emits intimacy because of the closeness between the model and the artist. Drawing a Nude Model Before a Mirror acts like a „behind the scenes“ drawing, which reveals us part of the (possibly intimate) relationship between Schiele and his models. It is as if the artist and the woman are being „caught in the act“ of creating the drawing, and that highlights the eroticism in the artwork, as well as the capability of the gestural line. Like Female Nude, the woman in Model Before a Mirror wears nothing but stockings. The presence of scanty clothing makes the model look more erotic compared to a situation where she is completely naked. Although she reveals her private parts to the viewer, the stockings create a feeling that there is more to be revealed about the woman, which arouses sexual interest in men. Also, the neglect to remove the last piece of clothing could suggest carelessness and freedom – the model is not controlled by Schiele in any way, even in terms of her appearance. Stockings are a usual element in Schiele’s nude drawings and paintings. Even more erotic and private were Schiele’s drawings and paintings of Wally – simply because of the fact that she was his lover for 4 years and was the closest example of a model to enter Schiele’s artistic world. Two paintings – Woman in Black Stockings (Valerie Neuzil) (Figure 9) and Wally in Red Blouse with Raised Knees (Figure 10) – are showing Schiele’s lover to the viewer. In Red Blouse, the model looks at the viewer in a questioning, but rather unbothered way. Her legs are raised in way that it seems like she is prepared for a sexual intercourse, but at the same time, she does not look excited about it. This painting is more erotic than it is sexual, and we can see how comfortable Wally was in Schiele’s company, serving the role of a model. In Black Stockings, she has a shier pose, and her private parts are not exposed. The accent is on her hips and her face. In these two paintings it seems like Schiele did not want to expose his lover to the viewer, unlike the previous models, because he had feelings for her and did not want to share his moments with Wally with the viewer. However, it must be noted that one of the most sexually explicit paintings that Schiele had done have Wally as a model for them, too. The paintings of Wally are important because they reveal what previous paintings could not – Schiele’s feelings and intimacy. The eroticism in Schiele, I believe, comes from the fact that his models look comfortable, free and challenging in the same way – as if sexuality and eroticism is their safe place and they feel „at home“ when they are posing nude for the artist.
Both artists, Klimt and Schiele, scandalized Viennese culture and society with their provocative, explicit and, most importantly, empowering images of women. While there is a difference between their approach, since Klimt tended to paint more dreamy and fantastic women, while adding some sort of narrative to the painting, and Schiele executed more raw, lively and confident women, while excluding elements of narrative and focusing on their sole bodies, both artists changed the way Vienna looks at women, and showed to the society that females should not be overlooked. With Klimt’s femme fatale and Schiele’s gestural drawing, women in their art are being empowered, embraced and praised. Both artists showed affection to females and tried to exclude the male gaze from their artworks. Despite the shock that their works created, Klimt and Schiele, with the usage of eroticism and sexuality, showed to the viewer how challenging can eroticism be and how erotic can challenges be. Their paintings were not mere pornography – the sexuality in their works gave confidence to women, and made men reconsider their perception of the world and of the gender roles.
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списание „Нова социална поезия“, бр. 14, ноември, 2018