Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Mapping Misogyny: Monstrous Females of the Fin-de-Siècle

This post is inspired in part by Bram Dijkstra's Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in fin-de-siècle Culture. In this book Dijkstra approaches his topic as a feminist thinker, in order to interrogate 19th century art's misogynistic fascination with, fixation on and fetishistic presentation of “feminine evil”. I found Dijkstra's historical method of drawing on scientific and pseudo-scientific papers from the period (along with works of sociology and philosophy, magazines, lifestyle manuals and journals) productive and convincing.

It becomes apparent that the fin-de-siècle culture was caught between a progressive desire for knowledge and scientific advancement, and retrogressive and oppressive theories of race, class and gender relations. Dijkstra's exhaustive documentary research details, for example, the ways in which scientific writers used the technique of cranial measurement, supported by Darwinian theories of evolution, to justify the dominant racist and and sexist thinking of the period as “objective truth”. It was argued that as women's skulls are (apparently) generally smaller than men's, their brains must also be smaller, proving “scientifically” their intellectual inferiority. By documenting such shameful theories, Dijkstra is able to paint a picture of the world-view of the fin-de-siècle's cultural elite, and use this as a lens through which to view the art that society produced.

For example, in the chapter “The Collapsing Woman, Solitary Vice and Restful Detumescence”, Dijkstra connects the rise of a trend of paintings featuring myriad figurations of sleeping, dozing and recumbently swooning women with a new scientific study that warned of an epidemic of female masturbation. It was feared that young women and girls were all secretly masturbating whenever alone, and that this was a danger to their health, sapping their energies and leaving them pale and wan! While the linkage may appear far-fetched today, when it is less widely assumed that masturbation is damaging, I found Dijkstra's juxtaposition of paintings of pale, exhausted, collapsing women with the contemporary “scientific evidence” of dangerous self-pleasuring/self-harming compelling. For a feminist critic it is important not to take the presentation of gender and sexuality at face value, as “just the way it is”, but to interrogate assumptions and presentations of normalised behaviour as constructions of patriarchal regulation.

Dijkstra's study shows how the fin-de-siècle's treatment of women as symbols of fear and fascination reveals an inability to view women as equals, instead casting them as codified objects. Art has often taken inspiration from real life, from discoveries and inventions as well as societal problems; therefore it seems plausible that male artists who were invested in the upholding of patriarchal supremacy would be fascinated by “scientific” studies that denounced women as slaves of nature, as low and bestial creatures of excessive sexuality.

I found Dijkstra's militant thesis intriguing: the connection of the seemingly disparate realms of the scientific, the social and political with the artistic sheds light on the way oppression can function in a guise that doesn't seem to be negative but rather beautiful and erotic. How many women have prints on their walls such as Albert Moore's The Dreamers (1882) or Frederic Lord Leighton's Flaming June (1895), and think them harmless depictions of innocent female beauty in slumber? Although aesthetically they are indeed beautiful figures, they promote a type of femininity that is passive and available and valuable only as spectacle. I found I was looking at many famous and seemingly politically neutral paintings with new eyes: the system of production which propagated a desired type of feminine powerlessness became evident in what I had previously thought of as harmless.

In Dijkstra's reading, nothing in such artworks was treated as accidental or innocent, but instead related to a system of male dominance over women: the notion of feminine evil was something constructed (not reported) by sexist cultural production. Mythical female character types were among the most favoured subjects in painting of this period, the fear and desire of unknown female sexuality being personified by such “bad” women such as Medusa, Lamia, Pandora, Salome and Judith: vampiric females and femmes-fatales whose sexuality threatened to devour, consume and break apart the strongholds of male solidity and righteousness. These figures of excessive sexual threat were both attractive and repulsive to the gentle yet hypocritical bourgeois sensibilities of the time: they allowed patriarchal society to disavow its own base desires by placing the responsibility for moral degeneracy with evil temptresses. These were depictions of women that could be desired and then destroyed with a clear conscience.

Looking at these mythic and religious characters, the misogyny of the ancient world is made abundantly clear. Women are presented here as illogical, shallow creatures, full of rampant sexual jealousy and likely to act violently if their menfolk show an interest in other women. Those that are not actively violent are dangerous by virtue of their very femininity and beauty, which confuses and overwhelms men, inducing a dangerous loss of self.

The point of thinking about characters such as Medusa, Lamia, Pandora, Salome and Judith is that together they form a catalogue of dangerous female stereotypes. Each “type” contains some positive element: for example, some characters are mothers and/or protectors and creators, but because this is a role possessing power and threatening the supremacy of men, the positive must be transformed through excess into a negative: the nurturing creator becomes the deadly destroyer, the protective mother an overwhelming, all-consuming figure. Likewise, beautiful or sexually attractive characters are punished for tempting the male, who appears to be without individual willpower, letting himself be seduced or (as in Poseidon and Medusa) “provoked” into rape: always it is the woman who is blamed and punished.

The sexism of fin-de-siècle art is rooted in the ancient misogyny embodied by these mythic figures. I will now examine the ways such figures were taken up by artists of the 19th century, to see how they were inspired by the dangerous women of ancient Greek and Christian mythology. Having catalogued the mythic figures of dangerous women, I can now extract two fundamental stereotypes: The vampire, who drains men metaphysically by consuming their sexually/vitality, and the seducer/destroyer who uses her own beauty or sexuality against male power, or whose unrestrained female desire threatens the integrity of the masculine world. I'm interested in how painters of the 19th century take up these characters, how and why they use them as tropes, and how that reflects the culture the paintings were produced in.

Looking at many of these Pre-Raphaelite and Symbolist paintings of dangerous, highly-eroticised women, it becomes clear that female sexuality is seen as both attractive and repulsive, feared and sought-after. Just as in Greek mythology, these figures serve as cautionary tales for the culture of the period. Patrick Bade offers another explanation of why 19th century artists choose to depict women as threatening and desirable, proposing that they were worried that women and marriage would trap them and thwart their artistic aspirations: "In the second half of the 19th century there was an extraordinary proliferation of femmes-fatales in European art and literature...This preoccupation with evil and destructive women is one of the most striking features of late 19th-century culture...A deep-rooted misogyny had been common among many artists since the beginning of the century. Some painters, among them Delacroix, Corot, Courbet, Dégas, Moreau and Munch avoided marriage, fearing that their work would suffer from female interference. The belief was widespread that women sapped creativity and that they were incapable of elevated feelings or of understanding art".

If, then, the seductress is a metaphor for the repressive institution of marriage, then how is this fear made manifest in the bodies of women? Bram Dijkstra illustrates how the very physiognomy of the women portrayed is constructed to entrap men. He makes the connection with giving the women in paintings very long hair, like ropes which he calls “clinging vines” that ensnare men to their doom: sexual intercourse/marriage. Speaking of John William Waterhouse, a prominent Pre-Raphaelite, Dijkstra describes the function of Waterhouse's long haired femme-fatale in terms that hold true for many others, including Rossetti's Pandora, Beardsley's The Climax, Klimt's Judith and the Head of Holofernes and Munch's The Vampire:

"Waterhouse depicted her as entwining her prey with the double enticements of her eyes and her hair, the latter serving as a symbolic lasso. Given the period's cliché that long hair was virtually synonymous with mental debility, poets and painters found women's tresses to be a particularly apt medium for the symbolic depiction of the clinging vine. The manner in which women's hair was fetishised in the late 19th century is a perfect example of the processes of 'cultural entrapment'" Patrick Bade continues the theme of women's hair acting as fetishistic displays in 19th century paintings that link beauty (or desire) to a compulsive fatalism, which to these painters, the femme-fatale represented, "The femme-fatale's hair was her most lethal weapon. Rossetti's passion for women's hair throughout his career was nothing short of an obsession. There are many stories of Rossetti breaking off in mid-conversation at parties, as if hypnotised, when a red-headed women entered the room, or running through the streets of London in pursuit of a fine head of hair...Rossetti's morbid fixation must have been still further heightened by the famous incident when he buried the first drafts of all his early poetry in Lizzie Siddal's coffin, wrapped in her lovely copper-coloured hair".

Looking at paintings of this period, I've also come across the persistent pairing of snakes with women (see Franz Von Stuck's Sensuality).The snake has connotations with the the garden of Eden and Eve's temptation. The snakes' serpentine form along with the flowing long locks appear to be slippery: the female bodies seem liminal. Judith is in a liquid landscape in which her hair barely covers her breast, mingling with the hair of the decapitated Holofernes. This also happens in Munch's Vampire, where the woman's red hair mimics her action of sucking his blood: she is literally devouring the man, covering his hair with her own - her image consumes his. The borrowing of Christian mythology allows a literal translation of ideas and themes to the 19th art viewer: scenes of women with snakes and women as snakes represents the untrustworthiness of women, expressing the sexist attitudes of these painters.

While I was reading Patrick Bade's book Femme Fatale, Images of Evil and Fascinating Women, I started thinking about what pleasures and attractions the femme-fatale has for feminists as an icon of powerful and/or subversive femininity. Bade's book gets closer to what it could be about the dangerous women that society finds fascinating and attractive. Like Dijkstra he also views the paintings and painters through a feminist lens to reveal the misogynistic attitudes of the time; yet unlike Dijkstra, he allows for a consideration of his own emotional and desiring response to the work. Although not acting as an apologia for the misogyny inherent in the work, it goes some way to explain why these characters/stereotypes are something attractive/interesting even today.

While writing of the Symbolists (Franz Von Stuck, Odilon Redon, Gustave Moreau, Edvard Munch, Fernand Khnopff et al), Bade brings to light the “fashionable Satanism” dabbled in by the Symbolists (albeit more in theory than in actual practice). For these artists, the dangerous and evil women was actually something strangely empowering, as they were celebrating the evil seductress, the bestial desire of the human animal (often in fact depicting women as animal and beast) and the ravaging destructive “mother nature” type etc.This is also a form of negative representation, yet some of the appeal I found personally as a child and then a young women at looking at these images of dangerous femmes-fatales was the brazen enjoyment with which they are presenting their bodies and sexualities, the strength they express. These women were not subservient and meek: they possess a threatening power over men. This view was a naive one, yet in a culture with an over-abundance of images of pretty, safe, domestic, passive femininities, the femme-fatale seemed to offer an image of a radical alternative. As much as I admire Dijkstra's militancy about exposing these negative representations and sexist constructions, he does not leave any room for these kinds of receptions.


Franz Von Stuck's Sensuality, 1891
Dante Gabriel Rossetti Pandora,1869
Gustav Klimt Judith and the Head of Holofernes, 1901.
Aubrey Beardsley The Climax, from the illustrations for Oscar Wilde's Salome, 1894-3
Edvard Munch, The Vampire 1893-4


  1. Any chance of having the illustrations captioned in-place? I was just about to ask for captions, and only noticed the list of illustrations as it was directly above the comment form!

    1. And doesn't the Beardsley come before the Klimt?

  2. Thanks for pointing this out. Will now correct the illustration titles to be in the right order.

  3. Interesting stuff. I was confused by this point: "Looking at these mythic and religious characters, the misogyny of the ancient world is made abundantly clear." Up to here, you've been talking about 19th-century depictions of these characters; it's unclear to me how they demonstrate the misogyny of the ancient world. (I suspect the two misogynies are quite different, given the quite different interpretations we tend to put on mythical characters compared with those of the ancient world.)

  4. Ta. My point is that the creation of these mythical and religious female characters such as Judith and Salome(who are dangerous, sexual excessive and threatening etc) are evidence of the ancient worlds misogynist attitudes. When these characters are later represented and reproduced during 19th century in art, the misogyny that informed the characters construction is made visible...

  5. Reuben I think your right, the misogynies of the ancient world and the 19th century are as you say quite different, this is quite interesting and worth thinking about and comparing at a later date.