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The Madonna and the Whore

In the early years of the twentieth century, artists, scientists  and philosophers in Central Europe were preoccupied with what was commonly referred to as the “Woman Question.” The changing roles of men and women in industrial society had spawned both the women’s emancipation movement and a plethora of studies in gender difference, of which purported to offer “objective” proof of female inferiority. Riffing on the latest scientific discoveries, men opined that evolution had hard wired women to be physically weaker, stupider and more submissive than they. Many of these mysogynistic theories were united in Otto Weininger’s hugely popular 1903 tract Sex and Character “In … the absolute female,” Weininger wrote, “there are no logic, and ethical phenomena and therefore the ground for the  assumption of a soul is absent.”

Of particular  concern to men was female sexuality. “The woman is devoted totally to sexual matters,” Weininger explained, “that is to the spheres of begetting and reproduction.” She was essentially all vagina, no brain. However other theorists, including Sigmund Freud, held that libido was an inherently masculine trait, and that sexual desire in a woman was abnormal. “Healthy” women successfully sublimated their erotic instincts in the service of bearing and raising children. This line of thought affirmed the age old Christian paradigms of the “Madonna” and the “whore,” as exemplified by the Virgin Mary and Eve, the first sinner. Women were either asexual maternal types, or evil nymphomaniacs.

The Madonna/whore dichotomy forms a recurrent leitmotif in the work of Gustav Klimt. His famous portraits of Viennese society ladies look like Byzantine or Russian religious icons. Little faces peek out from vast expanses of ornamentation, which not only conceal the women’s bodies but render them flat and virtually sexless. The subjects’ erotic power is subsumed within a sensuous decorative surround. In Klimt’s allegorical paintings and many of his studio drawings, on the other hand, sexuality is addressed in an extremely forthright manner. Often the women appear lost in an orgasmic trance. Nonetheless the unabashed beauty of these drawings holds their eroticism in check, turning the women into objects of aesthetic contemplation. Similarly, the nudes’ frequently supine positions reinforce their passive objecthood. Even in Klimt’s most abstract  renderings, foreshortening anchors the women in their own separate spaces, thereby, securely pinioning them before the gaze of the (presumptively) male viewer.

Egon Schiele, by way of contrast, willfully violated every aesthetic device that had traditionally been used to contain the nude’s potentially volatile eroticism. In his drawings, recumbent figures arc frequently depicted  vertically rather than horizontally, tipping forward so as to breach the previously sacrosanct boundary between the nude and her male observer. Seldom are Schiele’s nudes beautiful, serene objects of contemplation. Again unlike Klimt, Schiele evidenced a persistent interest in the female personality. The doe-eyed, lovelorn Wally, the elegant ingénue Elisabeth Lederer, and the artist’s fearsome, slightly depressed mother all come off as complex, complete human beings. They are the antitheses of the “soulless” creature, described by Weininger.

Female artists in the early twentieth century were by no means immune to prevalent gender stereotypes. Kathe Kollwitz, internalizing the common view that professionally ambitious women were hermaphrodites, acknowledged that “the tinge of masculinity within me helped me in my work.” Many feminists advocated employment opportunities only for women (such as through misfortune widows, orphans and “spinsters”) who through misfortune were denied male providers. Kolllwitz’s father encouraged her to pursue artistic training because he thought she was too ugly to find a husband. She, for her part, bemoaned the silliness of her female colleagues, many of whom were merely biding their time in art school as a prelude to marriage. Women were not admitted to the official art academies in Germany or Austria until after World War I, and the separate female art schools were for the most part distinctly inferior. To preserve their virginity, bourgeois girls at the turn of the century were kept largely ignorant of sexual matters. Because women could as a result study life drawing only at the private academies Julian and Colarossi in Paris, many foreigners (including Kollwitz and Paula Modersohn-Becker) traveled there to study.

Lack of experience in drawing naked models, as well as relative unease with her own sexuality, are reflected in the work of Kollwitz and many other female artists of her generation. The nude is “still foreign to me,” she wrote in 1919, when she was already in her fifties. “Only the total attitude and the face and hands speak to me.” Although Kollwitz did produce a small, “secret” body of erotic drawings in response to a short-lived extramarital affair, Freud would have approved of the way in which she on the whole sublimated her sexuality in the service of motherhood. Many have commented that Kollwitz’s depictions of mothers are her only happy works. Nurturing the seed of future generations was woman’s primary duty, making her also a powerful crusader for social justice and a promoter of pacifism. For Kollwitz, the roles of activist, artist and mother were integrally connected. “As you, the children of my body, have been my tasks”, she told her son Hans, “so too are my other works.” She remained rooted in a biological concept of femininity that was strongly conditioned by contemporary social imperatives.

Paula Modersohn-Becker was far more skeptical about the virtues of motherhood. The peasant mothers in her paintings and drawings seem worn down by narrowly circumscribed lives. Their children are like little aliens, lost in separate worlds of fantasy or fear. When Modersohn-Becker created these works she had never really experienced motherhood herself, nor would she. Married in 1901 to the much older painter Otto Modersohn, she soon chafed at his attempts to control her artistic and personal agenda. Recognizing that marriage was at the time incompatible with creative independence, she fled to Paris in 1906. Unfortunately, without support from her husband or family, Paula could not last long, and about a year later Otto brought her back to Germany. She died in November 1907, several days after giving birth to their daughter. Her last words were “Too bad.”

Male attempts to force women into the increasingly untenable molds of “lady” or “tramp” spawned a number of debasing moral clichés. Men did not necessarily condemn prostitution, so long as the “tramps” remained socially and economically beholden to them. For example, Max Klinger’s 1884 etching cycle, A Life, chronicles the path of a woman who, after being abandoned by her lover, takes to the stage (at the time considered a compromising vocation), then to the street and finally descends Into the gutter! She is eventually redeemed by Christ before falling back into nothingness in the final plate. Male viewers were prepared to offer sympathy in exchange for female humility and loss. On the other hand, unbridled female sexuality was perceived as a threat. Images of deadly temptresses turn up repeatedly in the early work of Alfred Kubin and in the many popular fin-de-siecle representations of Judith, the Old Testament heroine who seduces and then decapitates Holofernes. Oskar Kokoschka presented a stark iteration of the theme in his 1909 drama Murderer, Hope of Women: if you were a man, it was kill or be killed.

Beyond the Madonna/whore divide lay a deeper philosophical chasm. For centuries the male had been associated with civilization, culture, spirituality and intelligence, and the female with primitivism, nature, lust and instinct. While the former qualities were for the most part considered positive and the latter qualities negative, there was a contrarian line of thought, derived from the eighteenth century writings of Jean Jacques Rousseau, that idealized the “noble savage.” In the late nineteenth century, as European intellectuals grew increasingly dissatisfied with “rational” civilization, a cult of the “primitive” emerged. Rebelling against bourgeois norms, Expressionists such as Kokoschka and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner educated themselves at local ethnographic museums, appropriating the stylized forms and bright colors of tribal art. Posing their naked models outdoors in the countryside near Dresden, the Brücke artists achieved a perfect synthesis of primitivism, nature and female sexuality. Hermann Max Pechstein and Emil Nolde even traveled to the South Seas in pursuit of exotica, and Otto Mueller joined a band of Gypsies, intrigued by the women’s shameless nudity. Female dancers and circus performers, who likewise embodied uninhibited sensuality, were popular both on the stage and as artistic subjects. Woman thus became the emblem of man’s revolt against convention without in any sense being divested of her inferior cultural associations.

Artists’ attempts to recreate a primitive idyll beyond the reaches of modem industrial society were doomed to failure. The city was the engine of economic growth and consequently an unavoidable center of the art market. Two years after the Brücke group relocated from Dresden to Berlin in 1911, it lost its communal integrity and disbanded. Kirchner, nonetheless, was inspired in Berlin to produce some of his strongest works. The artist is justly celebrated for his depictions of sophisticated urban streetwalkers, although his attitude toward his subjects remains difficult to decode. It is not clear whether these seductive sex merchants are symbols of modem alienation, or rather an extension of Kirchner’s fascination with erotic exotica, earlier expressed in terms of bucolic innocence. The rejection of bourgeois mores was for many avant garde thinkers linked with an opposition to capitalism. Prostitution thus came to represent the dehumanizing commodification of daily life.

In Germany after World War I, artists often used prostitutes as symbols of socio economic-exploitation. It had quickly become evident that the ostensibly socialist government of the Weimar Republic was in cahoots with the capitalist industrialists whom leftist thinkers like George Grosz blamed for the war. At the same time, the women’s emancipation movement had made strides only dreamed of before the war. This was the era of the “new woman,” suddenly free to wander public spaces without a chaperone, to work outside the home, to study at the universities and art academics, and to vote. She cropped her hair, abandoned her corsets and shortened her skirts. Even proper young ladies began to acknowledge their sexuality and to recognize that it gave them a degree of power over men. In the cinema, the “tramp” morphed into the “vamp,” a character invented by the American silent film star Theda Bara. These phenomena breathed new life into the prewar image of woman as vampiric sexual predator.

Men’s fear of women was heightened by the feelings of vulnerability and impotence that soldiers had experienced during the war. Returning home, they were determined to take charge, to recoup in the battle of the sexes what had been lost on the battlefield. The carnage of combat had accustomed men to violence, and both Otto Dix and Grosz vented their post traumatic rage on female subjects. The ugliness of their nudes subverts the classical ideal not in the interest of unleashing female erotic power, but to the contrary, for the purpose of killing all desire. The literal killing (and sometimes dismemberment) of a naked woman, the Lustmord (sex murder), was a favorite theme for Dix and Grosz. Neither artist was especially concerned with women’s personalities. “I could give a shit about depth in a woman,” Grosz wrote. “Usually that means they suffer from a repulsive excess of male characteristics…. I am the only one with a mind.” With a few exceptions, men’s formal portraits of women in the immediate postwar period were as ugly as the nudes. For the most part the “lady” was eclipsed by the “tramp” in Weimar Germany.

As a female artist coming of age in the 1920s, Marie Louise Motesiczky benefited from the period’s new freedoms, but her creative autonomy was protected less by these circumstances than by her family’s wealth. She did not need to marry, nor did she have to sell her work. She could travel as she pleased throughout Europe and America, studying now in Paris, then in Frankfurt with Max Beckmann. A strikingly beautiful woman, she had many lovers, but a special attraction to unavailable geniuses. She vied with her friend Mathilde (Quappi) Kaulbach for Beckmann’s affections and later flirted with Kokoschka (who would shortly marry Olda Palkovska). Finally Motesiczky embarked on a five  decades  long affair with the married writer Elias Canetti. Although Canetti, a notorious philanderer, would eventually break her heart, he was supportive of the artist’s vocation in a way that a husband probably would not have been. Motesiczky knew well what marriage to a great man entailed: Quappi had given up her singing career to marry Beckmann. It seems likely that Motesiczky subconsciously acquiesced to the trade off implicit in the Canetti affair: better an intellectual love match than the constraints of a conventional marriage. Much of Motesiczky’s work is semiautobiographical, duly chronicling her various relationships romantic and otherwise. In these works, she is neither lady nor tramp, but a fully rounded human being, in confident command of her personal identity as well as her sexuality.

Today it is common to see the lady/tramp dichotomy and the Madonna/Whore divide as artifacts of a benighted bygone age. The blatant misogyny of someone like Otto Weininger now has little traction in the West. Nonetheless a debate still quietly rages regarding woman’s biological destiny, and the conflicting demands of motherhood and career are difficult to reconcile. While men have so far been harder hit by the current economic downturn than women, females still earn less than males. As middle class wages stagnate, males become more likely to vent their anger on the opposite sex, and females to seek economic security in a rich husband. Popular culture teaches little girls to exaggerate their “sex appeal” long before they reach puberty, and grown women resort to extremes of surgical intervention and dieting that are at best dehumanizing and at worst lethal. Men want women to act and look like whores and then blame them if they get raped. As the Dominique Strauss Kahn story illustrates, in cases of alleged sexual assault the man’s word still carries more weight than the woman’s, especially if mercenary motives can be ascribed to her testimony. Sex remains a commodity, both overtly and covertly. Male dominance is abetted by a moral code designed to denigrate women.

These reflections by Jane Kallir are taken from the  10/11-12/30, 2011 newsletter and sale catalogue of the Galerie St Etienne, 24 West 57th St, New York. The Galerie St. Etienne is the oldest gallery in the United States specializing in Expressionism and Self-Taught Art. Its predecessor, the Neue Galerie, was founded in Vienna in 1923 by the late Otto Kallir and was a principal exponent of German and Austrian modernism during the period between the two world wars. See the Galerie’s site http://www.gseart.com

 

 

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