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The Modern Woman and the Femme Fatale: Male Anxiety and Munch’s Madonna

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The Modern Woman and the Femme Fatale: Male Anxiety and Munch’s Madonna

Robert Baldwin

Associate Professor of Art History

Connecticut College

New London, CT 06320
(This essay was written in 2007 and revised for the general discussion of gender in 2010.)

A Broad Schema for the Analysis of Gender and Culture in Later 19th-Century Europe

In the late nineteenth century, different social groups defined a broad spectrum of gender roles which sometimes overlapped, despite sharp political differences, and at other times diverged along political lines. Adding to this complexity was the presence of sharply contradictory elements within the same mentality. For now, I have divided social groups into three categories:

First, there was a small middle and upper class feminist movement, largely female, which pushed for the right to vote, secondary (and in some countries, higher) education, better salaries and working conditions, control of finances, the right to divorce, and better conditions for working class children, orphans, widows, and prostitutes. At the same time, most feminists of the day supported traditional domestic roles, especially the “family feminism” found in France.
My second category includes virtually everyone else, all hostile to the new feminism and supporting traditional roles for women. This broad mainstream, and especially its men, helped popularize the new misogynist theme of the femme fatale. It also gave strong support to traditional domestic roles for women and to anti-feminist caricatures of the new woman as a dominating, emasculating man-hater running off from her family to pursue her own immoral pleasures and intent on destroying the social order. In the futurist novels of Alfred Robida, giant women exploited modern technology to seize power and run the world.
This large majority included all major political parties such as socialists, republicans, constitutional monarchists, and conservatives. The main exception in France was the Republican left which gave strong support to secondary education for women but only to break the perceived stranglehold of Catholic values, not to propel women into high education or the professions. In any case, republican laws providing for national secondary education for French girls had little effect outside the large cities where most girls left school at eleven or twelve to help support their families. i My last group is a tiny, radical, male fringe supporting “free love” and the “liberated” female body while worrying about the “threat” of an unconstrained female sexuality and demonizing it with femme fatale imagery.

Feminism, the New Woman, and the Reassurance of Traditional Gender Roles

The late nineteenth and early twentieth century saw the rise of the suffrage movement aimed at winning the right to vote for woman. As the first large scale organizing of women as a political force, the suffrage movement brought rallies, public speeches and writings, marches and protests across Europe and America. At a time when women were excluded from voting and public office, from most secondary and higher education, from the professions and the arts, from managing their own finances, from institutional governance, and from most public speaking and writing, the woman’s movement aimed to expand opportunities and possibilities for women without overturning the basic division of labor.

The New Woman, as she was called, was more independent, eager to move about on the new bicycle which symbolized female freedom outside the home, and to begin to find her own voice. With its core support among upper and middle class women in the largest cities, the women’s movement was not hostile to traditional family values. While campaigning for the right to vote, for improved educational and work opportunities, better wages, financial independence, and the right to divorce, most early feminists still believed in a “feminine” sphere tied to the home, to marriage and motherhood, and, in the arts, to music and the decorative arts. And most early feminists subscribed to the idea that women were natural caregivers, nurturers, more refined and spiritual, and better tuned to a subtle, interior world of feeling, imagination, and beauty. As such, they exercised special talent in the decorative arts tied to the home. In her report on the importance of women in the decorative arts, the French feminist, Madame Pégard, called on female artists to help return French art to its former glory seen in the eighteenth century when the decorative arts reigned supreme. ii
As a “familial feminism,” the late nineteenth-century women’s movement helped fuel the outpouring of reassuring, traditional images of women between 1880 and 1920 even if these images were received differently by feminists and their many critics. These images included women imbedded in a refined gardens and pastoral landscapes and domestic scenes of women presiding over an equally refined and protected interior dedicated to flowers, music, poetry, feeling, artistic imagination, decorative arts, beauty, and the “finer things”. The aestheticized feminine interior and the world of “female” interiority took on special prominence in the 1890s as seen in Art Nouveau, in some Symbolists (Redon), and above all in the Nabis painter, Vuillard. The new feminism was also compatible with the flood of images depicting the good mother and the universalized nursing mother now allegorized with titles such as Maternity and Madonna. Academic artists (Puvis, Bouguereau), Pre-Raphaelites (Leighton), Realists (Millet, Mackensen), Impressionists (Renoir, Cassatt, Morisot), Symbolists (Gauguin, De Haan, Meunier, Segantini, Hodler, Gallen-Kallela), Nabis (Vuillard, Bonnard), and Expressionists (Modersohn-Becker) all made numerous images of mothers and small children, many with universalizing titles. By giving the title Madonna to an image of a femme fatale, Munch turned that tradition on its ear.

Male Radical Progressives, Free Love, and the Female Body as Emblem of Modernity

At a time when marriage was seen by some of the most progressive voices as a soul-destroying gilded cage for women (Ibsen’s Doll House), a few radical voices called for a new age of “free love” and the liberation of sexuality from the patriarchal institution of marriage. The call for “free love” was especially appealing to radical male writers and artists who celebrated female sexuality as a larger emblem of modern freedom, on the one hand, and a reassuring theme amidst provocative modernist abstraction, on the other. Despite its ties to traditional academic art (Bouguereau), the pastoral nude became one of the major subjects of modern art between 1885 and 1920 as it supposedly threw off the shackles of traditional imagery and aesthetics and middle class morality. This explains the flood of pastoral nudes in Symbolism (Gauguin, Denis, Hodler, Munch), Neo-Impressionism (Cross), Nabis (Bonnard, Roussel, La Touche), Fauvism (Matisse, Friesz, Derain), Cubism (Picasso), and Expressionism (Kirchner, Heckel, Mueller, Schmidt-Rottluff, Pechstein).

While traditional feminine roles of maternity were not absent in these artists, they focused on glorifying the erotic female body. In this, we can see a striking difference from feminists and female progressives. Although most of this art was celebratory in its tone, some male progressives such as the Pre-Raphaelite painters, Rossetti and Burne-Jones, and the Symbolist artist, Munch, remained deeply conflicted about the “liberated” female body. One the one hand, they celebrated the new woman within the larger umbrella theme of the eternal feminine. These included woman as goddess (especially Venus and Flora), nymph, angel, muse, and earth mother. On the other hand, it was the artists who first glorified the new women – the Pre-Raphaelites – who also invented the femme fatale in the 1860s and 1870s and gave the later Symbolist movement a major theme.

Male Backlash and the Femme Fatale as New Woman Liberated and Imprisoned by the Body

While the demonizing of female sexuality was well developed in the late Middle Ages and Northern Renaissance, most European art since 1550 had offered positive images of female sexuality in erotic mythology and landscape. While images of sexual reversal and female erotic power are not hard to find, they were often comical, as in Carracci’s Hercules and Omphale, or voyeuristic, as in Boucher’s depiction of that subject, and part of a larger, celebratory theme of the triumph of love.

The femme fatale was a strikingly new subject grounded in later nineteenth century anxieties about new roles and possibilities for women. As in later periods of feminism, the suffrage movement provoked a strong cultural backlash which enjoyed wide support among men across the political and cultural spectrum. On the one hand, this backlash encouraged the same traditional themes of female maternity and domesticity supported by progressive women. Male backlash also supported the outpouring of erotic landscapes produced by progressive male artists. But it was the new femme fatale where male backlash showed itself most clearly.
The femme fatale was invented twenty-five years before Symbolism in the English Pre-Raphaelite movement. In this early stage, the femme fatale was relatively benign compared to what came later in Symbolism. For the Pre-Raphaelites, the femme fatale was the goddess, nymph, alluring siren and the more distinctly modern fallen woman. As the suffrage movement gathered strength across Europe in the 1880s and 1890s, growing male anxiety spawned the dark, violent, and extreme misogyny of the Symbolist femme fatale. Yet both the Pre-Raphaelites and the Symbolists capitalized on the erotic appeal of the femme fatale. As a creature formed in the masculine erotic imagination, she embodied an irresistible “female” power and exercised an all-consuming fascination on the male psyche. In Munch’s colored woodcut, In Man’s Brain (1897), a frontal male head stares out, his head surmounted and engulfed by a large, naked woman dissolving into a swirling haze of curved lines.
Between 1885 and 1915, Europe witnessed a torrent of images and texts depicting women as insatiable sirens and creatures of the flesh like Eve and Delilah, as threatening, disease-ridden whores, as deadly spiders or felines, as all powerful harpys, monsters (sphinxes) devouring men, as vampires sucking their blood, and as deadly “castrating” beauties like Medusa, Salome (who beheaded John the Baptist) and Judith (who beheaded Holofernes). With the exception of the Belgian Symbolist, Rops, and Art Nouveau artists, Feure and Klimt, no artist of the late nineteenth century explored more images of the femme fatale than Edvard Munch. He showed naked women as vampires, harpies, cats, as Eve-like figures and allegories of Sin, and as huge figures swirling in the brains of men. He even depicted himself as the severed head of John the Baptist and as Marat, the French revolutionary, murdered by Charlotte Corday. In two paintings by Munch, Corday now appeared naked, towering over Munch’s prone body which lay in a blood-soaked bed, not in the medicinal bath where the real Marat was killed. All this is vital to an understanding of Munch’s Madonna.
On the one hand, the femme fatale represented the modern utopia of a liberated “female” sexuality. Here the femme fatale dramatically played up one aspect of the “new woman,” her potential for a more liberated sexual expression and autonomy outside the gilded cage of marriage. In theory, she was to taste the sexual freedom men had always enjoyed and reserved for themselves. At the same time, the femme fatale safely imprisoned the modern woman in a masculine imaginary world defining modern femininity in purely erotic terms tied to male fantasy. On the other hand, she imaged deeply rooted male fears about female sexuality as something mysterious, Other, primitive, infinite, uncontrollable, awesome, in part creative yet frighteningly destructive, a universalized physicality which all too easily seemed to engulf, swallow, devour and consume the helpless, fascinated male. Implicit in this anxiety is a half-consciousness masculine awareness of the weakness of male sexuality and the fragility of male power, an awareness born from witnessing the first real cracks in a hitherto timeless and eternal patriarchy.
The Femme Fate after Symbolism

The femme fatale began in the 1870 with the Pre-Raphaelites and peaked with Symbolism between 1890 and 1910. It much less conspicuous in Art Nouveau and absent from the Nabis, Fauves, Orphists, and most of the Expressionists with the exception of Dix and Grosz. Yet male anxieties over female emancipation continued to generate anxious images of women in later movements such as Surrealism (Masson, Pollock), and, to a lesser extent, Abstract Expressionism (De Kooning).As with the Pre-Raphaelites and the Symbolists, celebration of female sexuality mingled with dread.

Munch, Madonna, 1895-1902, lithograph

Munch’s Madonna

Munch’s Madonna was a late nineteenth-century femme fatale lying naked below (above?) the imagined male viewer like a sexual partner, her eyes closed, her arms behind her head heightening her voluptuous abandon with a traditional gesture of ecstasy and surrender known since classical antiquity. Her ghostly body dissolves into waves of darkness spreading out in rippling patterns toward a blood-red border where sperm circle endlessly as if mesmerized even at the cellular level. Here one thinks of Munch’s other works depicting a single naked woman surrounded by male admirers or reaching hands. The wavy patterns of the sperm echo those of the woman’s body and the dark waves around her while her red halo picks up the color of the sperm-filled channels. A fetus-like creature simultaneously resembling a skeleton appears at lower left, its fusion of birth and death projecting itself disturbingly out at the viewer with staring eyes.

Anti-Clericalism in Symbolist Art

If Madonna exemplifies the late nineteenth-century imagery of femme fatale, its title offers a good example of the anti-Christian sentiment among many artists, writers, and left-leaning politicians. Though Christianity played an important role in some of the most progressive movements from the late eighteenth-century to the present (abolitionism, socialism, civil rights), it was also an institutional force frequently tied to political conservatism, rigid middle class morality, and sexual repression. The French Revolution directed a great deal of its secular wrath at the Catholic Church and even tried to restart time to stamp out all traces of Christianity. While anti-Catholic pornography was a commonplace since the Enlightenment, anti-Catholic imagery grew more extreme and pornographic in the late nineteenth century and reached a zenith in the work of the Belgian Symbolist, Rops. Among other things, Rops put a voluptuous, naked temptress on the cross in his Temptation of St. Anthony, depicted Mary Magdalen masturbating underneath a large, crucified erection, and showed a crucified Satan with an erection presiding over an altar where a naked woman was “sacrificed”.

If these works substituted erotic women for conventional Christian icons, Munch’s whorish Madonna offered a particular rebuke to the Catholic chastity figured in traditional images of Mary. As such, it played to contemporary complaints about Christian sexual morality and patriarchal codes for women. That most male progressives were themselves highly patriarchal in their anxieties about a liberated female sexuality was generally lost on them.
One striking literary parallel to the anti-clericalism in Munch’s Madonna appeared in the work of the anticlerical Realist author, Zola. In his novel about the corrupt influence of the courtesan Nana, Zola described one of her Catholic lovers as follows.
But in the bedroom within he [Muffat] would grow dizzy and intoxicated and would forget everything--the mob of men which constantly crossed it, the sign of mourning which barred its door. Outside, in the open air of the street, he would weep occasionally out of sheer shame and disgust and would vow never to enter the room again. And the moment the portiere had closed behind him he was under the old influence once more and felt his whole being melting in the damp warm air of the place, felt his flesh penetrated by a perfume, felt himself overborne by a voluptuous yearning for self-annihilation. Pious and habituated to ecstatic experiences in sumptuous chapels, he there re-encountered precisely the same mystical sensations as when he knelt under some painted window and gave way to the intoxication of organ music and incense. Woman swayed him as jealously and despotically as the God of wrath, terrifying him, granting him moments of delight, which were like spasms in their keenness, in return for hours filled with frightful, tormenting visions of hell and eternal tortures. In Nana's presence, as in church, the same stammering accents were his, the same prayers and the same fits of despair--nay, the same paroxysms of humility peculiar to an accursed creature who is crushed down in the mire from whence he has sprung. His fleshly desires, his spiritual needs, were confounded together and seemed to spring from the obscure depths of his being and to bear but one blossom on the tree of his existence. He abandoned himself to the power of love and of faith, those twin levers which move the world. And despite all the struggles of his reason this bedroom of Nana's always filled him with madness, and he would sink shuddering under the almighty dominion of sex, just as he would swoon before the vast unknown of heaven.
Then when she felt how humble he was Nana grew tyrannously triumphant. The rage for debasing things was inborn in her. It did not suffice her to destroy them; she must soil them too. Her delicate hands left abominable traces and themselves decomposed whatever they had broken. And he in his imbecile condition lent himself to this sort of sport, for he was possessed by vaguely remembered stories of saints who were devoured by vermin and in turn devoured their own excrements. When once she had him fast in her room and the doors were shut, she treated herself to a man's infamy.

She alone kept her feet amid the heaped-up riches of her mansion, while a whole generation of men lay stricken down before her. Like those antique monsters whose redoubtable domains were covered with skeletons, she rested her feet on human skulls. She was ringed round with catastrophes. . . . [skip list of men she has ruined] . . . She had finished her labor of ruin and death. The fly that had flown up from the ordure of the slums, bringing with it the leaven of social rottenness, had poisoned all these men by merely alighting on them. It was well done--it was just. She had avenged the beggars and the wastrels from whose caste she issued. And while, metaphorically speaking, her sex rose in a halo of glory and beamed over prostrate victims like a mounting sun shining brightly over a field of carnage, the actual woman remained as unconscious as a splendid animal, and in her ignorance of her mission was the good-natured courtesan to the last. iii

In his visual embrace of the dissolving woman depicted in Munch’s Madonna, the male viewer also experiences Zola’s “voluptuous yearning for self-annihilation as he joins with an ecstatic figure whose “sex rose in a halo of glory and beamed over prostrate victims like a mounting sun shining brightly over a field of carnage”. Rather than imagining any direct connection between Zola and Munch’s image, I use Zola to show a typical, late nineteenth-century attitude which was both mesmerized and horrified by female sexuality.
The anti-clerical impulse was not the only Symbolist response to Catholic tradition. Other Symbolists such as Maurice Denis, and to a much lesser extent, Odilon Redon, were profoundly reverent, if nostalgic, about Catholic imagery and used it as the basis for what they hoped would be a new spiritual awakening in modern art. In Munch’s Madonna, Catholic imagery was cruelly emptied of all sanctity. That it was produced by a lapsed Lutheran from Norway was, perhaps, no accident.

Love as Anguish: Intimacy and Alienation in a Modern World

Needless to say, the sexual experience defined in Munch’s Madonna is marked by anxiety, death, and the idea of woman as something strange and Other, an irresistible yet terrifying abyss. Here we might consider another feature of Munch’s art which is only implied in Madonna but explicitly developed in many of his best works of the 1890s. And that is the depicting of lovemaking as the prelude to alienation, anguish, and despair (or the devouring monster of Jealousy). In Ashes (multiple versions in 1894, 1896, 1899) and in Man and Woman (1899), Munch depicted a standing naked woman staring out with hollow eyes at the viewer while a man curls up in fetal anguish, facing away from her in the farthest corner of the picture. In Encounter in Space (1899) a naked male and female body, one deep orange, the other pale green, float weightlessly past each other in a black infinity. In Separation (1896) and The Lonely Ones (1899), a couple stands close to each other at the edge of the sea yet miles apart, locked into a hopeless solitude which is universalized by the timeless landscape. In his woodcut, The Kiss (1898), Munch combined the two, flat bodies of the lovers into a single dark mass while fusing their faces into a single, blank area. While one can read in this featureless shape the sweet mingling of the kiss, the lack of any facial features and the insistent presence of the flat texture of the wooden block used to print the woodcut creates a disturbing emptiness, a void where we expect the humanizing signs of the face.

In these works, Munch’s art was as original in its subject matter as in its style. In contrast to a long Western tradition of moralizing images warning against bodily pleasures, Munch created works of art which registered the uniquely modern fusion of intimacy and love with solitude, rage, and despair. To some extent, this was an unanticipated consequence of the rise of a sexuality outside marriage with its long-term commitment and stabilizing social framework of kinship ties. It also registered the clash of traditional masculine desires and sexual expectations with a new feminine autonomy.
At the turn of the century, numerous European artists - Symbolist, Fauve, and Expressionist - developed Golden Age landscapes where sexually liberated human beings danced, feasted and made love to herald the advent of a new, utopian social order. In sharp contrast, Munch gave European viewers an opposing vision where the autonomous modern self, moving through a vague, undefined social space, found a liberated sexuality outside marriage only to encounter solitude and anguish in the midst of intimacy. My point here is not to equate intimacy with marriage. As a deeply patriarchal institution, marriage was itself the source of profound female alienation and despair no less than that depicted in Munch. But conjugal love and the despondency of the married woman trapped in the infantilizing roles described by Ibsen was not the subject of Munch’s art. Rather, he turned to explore the strange, peculiarly modern conjunction of human intimacy and anguish.

i See James McMillan, France and Women, 1719-1914, New York: Routledge Press, 2000; Debora Silverman, Art Nouveau in Fin-de-Siècle France, Berkeley, 1989, pp. 63-74

ii Silverman, op. cit., pp. 193-197.

iii Zola, Nana, ch. 13

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