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Dangerous Beasts: The Femme Fatale in Fin-de-Siecle Art

With national attention drawn to debates on sexuality, particularly that of women, there’s no time like the present for a look back at the ‘insatiable’ appetites of femme fatales from the early 20th century and their representation in art. Across the spectrum of the visual and literary arts, the fin-de-siècle is practically overflowing with imagery of the dangerous and deadly over-sexed–and over-vamped–woman. The idea of women as dangerous sirens (think mermaids and mythology) has existed for centuries, but this colorful imagery reached new heights—particularly regarding the aggressive and beast-like nature of women—in Art Nouveau.

Many factors contributed to this phenomenon, but chief among them was the increasing interest in scientific study, particularly in the fields of sexology and psychology. To this the arts responded in kind,  reacting with portrayals of women, sexually charged and threatening, to reflect the terrible fears and anxieties of the day.  

From jewelry to painting and the decorative arts, much of what was created in the Art Nouveau style incorporates a high degree of symbolism (and I’ve always loved this period for just that reason), with resulting works of art conjuring a sense of mystery, the notion of subtext, and the hint of unexpressed and taboo impulses  articulated via the female form. Bram Stoker’s Dracula, objects by Artus Van Briggle, Lalique, and Alphonse Mucha; paintings by Gustav Klimt and Franz von Stuck, posters by English artist Aubrey Beardsley—who broke new artistic ground with his poster design for Oscar Wilde’s Salome– all brought forth not only the suggestion of sexuality, but a full confrontation of the same with all the dangers inherent for the naïve man–who just might fall prey to the spell of a femme fatale.

According to theorists of the day, it was women–who in their naturally diminished and nature-designed weaker state of physical, emotional, and mental fortitude–sought out—through sex—the virile energy of the unsuspecting (but now duly warned) gentleman, and women who then sapped the life force, the sexual energy, and intellectual vigor of these same men who were otherwise destined to achieve unstoppable heights. 

 The sexology science of the day pushed the idea that women, beholden to their natural reproductive tendencies and therefore prone to anemia, sought blood as a tonic necessary for survival.  Not surprisingly, vampire myth ran like wildfire through this period, and the related imagery  found its way, naturally, to the art and literature of the day.  Dracula (1887), while led by a male protagonist, is heavy with psychosexual imagery borne out of the thirst of beautiful and charming women for intercourse, in this case also involving a piercing by the fangs of the preternaturally undead, which, in turn, renders these women the ultimate femme fatale, tempting, seeking, smelling, and lusting for blood. 

Sigmund Freud’s introduction of “hysteria” as an affliction and ailment peculiar to women did much to advance the boundaries of overt and ‘dangerous’ sexuality in art: Women were lustful and starved, confused and erratic, prone to weakness and frailty, and with no particular loyalties other than to feed their desires—whether material or carnal. It’s  of small surprise that this frightening characterization of women would find its way into the popular culture of the day and representation in literary and artistic channels. In fact, images taken of women in various states of hysteria, used by the medical profession to further categorize and make sense of the disorder, found its way to the artistic community and served as a sort of creative muse. (How’s that for medical privacy?!)

Also active in psychology was F.W.H. Myers, an English leader in the field of the subliminal as it relates to human impulse–and publisher of the 1891 text, The Subliminal Consciousness. Like Freud, Myers believed that our actions were not driven wholly by our conscious mind, but by subtext and layers residing in the subliminal. It was this subtext that could take on many themes, some of them erotic, many related to sexual impulse, and, again, with the potential to be quite descriptive of the female gender, especially in relation to male anxiety. A compelling visual representation of the same exists in Lalique’s ornament, Dragonfly Woman (c. 1897-1898). This half woman and half beast explores themes of metamorphosis and the nightmarish scenario of woman becoming animal.           

Completely and almost laughably outlandish to our current ways of seeing, the ‘scientific’ ideas that inspired this one facet of Art Nouveau were thought of as cutting-edge and innovative–breakthroughs in understanding human behavior. Now,  I can’t help but wonder if the breakthroughs of today will one day be the hysteria of yesterday.


2 comments on “Dangerous Beasts: The Femme Fatale in Fin-de-Siecle Art

  1. Joe Krulder
    February 29, 2012

    Nice article.

  2. arthash
    March 1, 2012

    Thanks so much!


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This entry was posted on February 29, 2012 by in Decorative Arts, Fine Art, Painting, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , .

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