The femme fatale is a myth, a projection, a construction», like this Markus Bertschcurator of the exhibition “FEMME FATALE Gaze – Power – Gender”, open until 10 April at the Hamburger Kunsthalle of Hamburg, defines «The image of a specific, strongly codified female stereotype: a sensual and erotic, desirable woman whose demonic nature is revealed when men fall under her spell, often with a fatal outcome». A dazzling image long dominated by the male gaze, she becomes the protagonist.
The constellation of suggestions and faces pervades our mind when thinking about the femme fatale, which originates from biblical and epic figures such as Eve, Medea and Circe. Dominatrix, lustful and perverse, she nourished romantic and decadent literature, generating characters such as Marquise de Merteuilfinding personification in the first “vamp”, a Danish term meaning vampire, of French cinema such as Theda Bara or Musidora, until arriving in American noir cinema.
Subtitled “Gaze, Power, Gender”, the exhibition places itself at the center of the contemporary discussion on feminism, in particular with regard to the modern conception of women and gender identity. «A problematic concept to say the least», explains Markus Bertsch, that of the femme fatale, mirror of the vision of women and witnesses of social changes which is told through 200 works, which bring together latitudes, chronologies and even sidereal thoughts, from Lipsticks to Nan Goldin.
In addition to exploring a series of artistic approaches to the theme, from the beginning of the 19th century to today, the exhibition aims to critically examine this mythical figure in its genesis and historical transformation, finding the incipit in the works of Julius Hubner, The fisherman and the Sirenand in the Rhine nymph LoreleiOf Carl Joseph Begas. The exhibition itinerary proceeds from the canvases of the Pre-Raphaelites, through the deliberately desired contrast between powerful women, who have gone down in history for their terrible deeds and a sensual and erotic staging, establishing an ideal, emblematic, in this sense, “Circe” in the work of John William Waterhouse.
The highly sexualized interpretation of Lilith by John Collier underlies the strong male desire, the same image that at the end of the nineteenth century will become progressively obsolete, grotesque and caricatured figures reveal a constructed and artificial ideal, while maintaining however the clichés of a harmful femininity, like the sirens of Arnold Böcklin which transforms the seductive power of these hybrid creatures into its opposite.
Bertsch suggests how these works «Visualize outdated gender relations and stage the female body in an erotic way that often appears sexist and misogynistic to our modern eyes. The works are largely products as well as projections of distinctly masculine fantasies.
A bridge is drawn between past and present in which the figure of the femme fatale enters into contrast with the figure of the “new woman”: women no longer act only in their domestic roles as wives and mothers but take part in political and social life, they wear men’s clothing and work as artists and office workers, but also as revue dancers, waitresses, and sex workers. With bob cuts, red lips, suits, hats and cigarettes, they represent the counter-narrative of a stereotype that will be reworked from the 60s, particularly in Jeanne Mammanwith strongly symbolist works, e Gerda Wegenerin the portraits of Lili Elbe, in which she deals with issues concerning the male-female binary.
At the latest, female artists of the feminist avant-garde work on stereotyped images of women, creating new narratives of femininity, sexuality and physicality. The deconstructions of. also contribute to the dissolution of the image of the femme fatale Ketty LaRoccaas well as the ironic and subversive appropriations of Birgit Jürgenssen. At the same time, the artists reinvent classical mythological figures, long seen as femmes fatales, subtly re-enacted, by Frances Woodmanor as figures across gender binary boundaries, in Sylvia Sleigh. Powerful representations of female physicality, such as those of Maria Lassnig or Dorothy Iannonein the end, provide positive images that leave the narrative of stereotypical sexuality far behind.
«Current feminist artists no longer have to fight the image of the femme fatale, but can re-appropriate and reuse it», says Bertsch, «Looking back and being aware of historical circumstances helps us better understand where we are today and what is yet to be done”. Here is the common thread that binds works that are so distant but which, brought together, return a lucid photograph of the achievements of female emancipation, of how much more can be done and of the role of witness and promoter that art has in these battles.
Femme Fatale, between myth and stereotype: the exhibition at the Hamburger Kunsthalle