The Portrayal of Woman in Fin-de-Siecle Vienna

We cannot begin to understand the response towards the contemporary patriarchal attitudes and theories toward women that the artists of the Vienna Secession manifested without discussing the men whose eyes interpreted the women of fin-de-siecle Vienna. During fin-de-siecle Vienna women were beginning to gain ground towards emancipation from oppressive patriarchal order of the Viennese society. The manifestation of these contemporary patriarchal attitudes is a complex one and rather difficult to define for many of the artists of the Secession had different ways of manifesting their personal attitudes toward women of the time.

It could be argued that the artists of the time responded with a split image of women; the split between love and admiration and the threat that an independent woman could create within the identity of men (Natter 74). We could also argue that they created images of emancipated women in their works. To engage us on these concepts we can look at secessionist artists such as Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele and how they engaged in representing women through their personal vision as men and why feminists did not necessarily accept them.

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We can also look how the secessionist engaged themselves with the female enterprise and visual responses to female emancipation attempts. The men of fin-de-siecle Vienna also created a resurge of the femme fatale image and created a link of psychological hysteria with femininity as a way to retaliate toward women’s rights movement. These protection mechanisms that men produced were a way to control women and give reason for their actions. Needless to say men of the time had plenty to express through actions and art. Women were finally beginning to assert themselves in fin-de-siecle Vienna.

They were now permitted to attend the University of Vienna in1897 despite the fact they could not take a degree (Sengoopta 32). They were also gaining control of their own lives such as owning property, smoking, riding bicycles, and participating in politics, which to some men of the time was extremely apocalyptic (West 86). Women were grabbing foothold in the society that they lived in, but the changing shift within the society was a cause for men in Vienna to launch their own form of retaliation on women. Like we still do today, women learn about what it means to be a woman and how to act from art and other media forms.

Men controlled these aspects of Viennese society and culture and therefore created the image of women, for the women. This created a difficult hurdle for Viennese females to climb in terms of psychological emancipation along with equal rights. Men started to using psychological theory to prove that women were unintelligent, inferior, unable to govern themselves, and unfit to participate in society (West 86). They were told by medical theory scholars in Vienna that women were considered functional only in the roles of a mother or prostitute.

Friedrich Nietzsche argued emancipation would lead to the degeneration of women, making them incapable of their “first and last profession—to give birth to strong children” (Sengoopta 30). Body and mind of the female was believed to be designed to carry out the need to procreate the human species only (Sengoopta 30). The German psychiatrist Paul Julius Mobius had clamed that the female mind was naturally inferior and weak compared to that of the male whose mind was designed to be intelligent and create and participate in society (Sengoopta 31).

Mobius also goes on to state, “creative intelligence in a woman was not a sign of superiority but of degeneration of the female kind”. It was thought that woman who chose to engage in education and literary circles were not normal or, for that matter, healthy. It can then be argued that women, and what they could create competitively if educated, threatened the men and the image of themselves in Viennese society. For example, Gustav Mahler requested of his composer-fiancee Alma Schindler that she discontinue her music career when they get married due to a competition issue.

He even writes her to say “from now on you have only on vocation: to make me happy. You must give yourself up to me unconditionally, make the shaping of your future life, in all its facets, dependent on my inner needs, and wish nothing more in return than my love” (Natter, Fischer 33). Within the Viennese secessionist group the woman that were portrayed within the works of art were solely at the mercy of the male gaze and personal interpretation. As previously mentioned, this interpretation of women is not necessarily the truth because the female culture of fin-de-siecle was changing so dramatically.

The artists of the Secession were responding to the contemporary patriarchal attitudes and theories through creating characters and personifications that place women that is based on their personal interpretations. The woman were often portrayed as a sort of femme fatale character which expressed a woman who was undeniably beautiful but had the power to entrance and trick men through that beauty. Otto Weininger claimed that woman had no attribute but sexuality and their “sole purpose was to win the esteem of man” (Sengoopta 105).

We can look at Hermann Bahr who viewed the femme fatale character in theatre as a hysterical female. We can also look more centrally at Gustav Klimt’s representation of the femme fatal character in his painting Judith I. Judith, it is an undeniably beautiful woman and a very sensual sexual character. She stares at us through half open eyes and mouth that suggest a sexual connotation. Her breasts are exposed and she is painted with claw like hands that encompass the head of Holofernes, which is a symbol of sexual desire onto the female figure.

It was believed starting in the 19th century that Judith had slept with Holofernes before decapitating him, which increases this relationship between beauty, sex, and the downfall of men and their identity that the femme fatale character is revered. Judith is a character that symbolizes a strong threat to the dominant males (Natter, Hammer-Tugendhat 222). She is an independent woman and acts that way; for an example, she is involved in political events, captured the strongest military commander, and kills a man. Judith is the epitome of female salvation (Natter, Hammer-Tugendhat 222).

We also see in his interpretation that Klimt has portrays her as a modern character because of the clothing she has on, that of what the bourgeois woman in Vienna would have worn. As an artist Klimt portrays Judith as a true character by making her a character that women and men are able to identify with instead of a purely fictional character. The femme fatale character was popular during fin-de-siecle Vienna because of the fear and anxiety that the feminist movement and the toll that it was taking on Viennese male society. The femme fatale image was an image that revealed what was thought to be the true nature of women.

This female image was the epitome of deceit and imposture, along with lying, and in Fin-de-siecle Vienne this was closely related to hysteria. Hermann Bahr saw the tragic heroines, the femme fatale characters, within plays such as Elektra as hysterics, which was a condition only associated with femininity (Sengoopta 104). Weininger believed contrary to Freud that the women had a dual consciousness where the true female mind was the hysteric consciousness, but when shaped by men this was hidden behind their “normal” consciousness (Sengoopta 109).

This he thought revealed the Woman secret: that woman did not possess an intelligible self. Woman did not deserve autonomy because she had no intelligible self was the source of all logical or ethical thought (Sengoopta 109). Based on Weininger’s idea on the woman and the hysterical dual personality we can look at Gustav Klimt works with this notion. In Baroness Elizabeth Bachthofen-Echt we see a very fashionably dressed bourgeois woman of Vienna. She looks straight out at us, self consciously aware and is in a confident pose. She is composed and what we would call a “normal” and “healthy” woman.

Juxtaposed with her straight and tall look there is a triangle that engulfs her body full of ornamental motifs. It could be argued Klimt plays with the notion of a second consciousness; now whether or not he believes it is a hysterical one is unclear. We do however get a sense of more than once personality or mind set in this painting that from the shape of the ornamental motif in the shape of an upside down womb and that is purely suggesting the female psyche. When it comes to discussing hysteria in women we must look at Egon Schiele’s interpretation of women.

Schiele worked to exaggerate feelings, emotions, thoughts, and actions to express ones innermost nature (Klaus 86). Jean-Martin Charcot was a physician that pressed the idea of using photography for the purpose of medicine (Klaus 83). The photos he took of female hysterics provided one of the first looks at the wider then previously thought range of gestural and expressive resources that a human being was capable of (Klaus 84). Schiele drew on these photographs to simply exploit the traditional concept of personality in women (Klaus 84).

Schiele brings us to an interesting crossroads with his interpretation of the female body, eroticism, and sex. In fin-de-siecle Vienna woman had previously thought to not have a sexual drive and if they did it was purely out of the instinct to mother children. Schiele’s works of nude women suggests he is pulled to expose women as sexual beings and in doing it is possible to argue that as a voyeur he was creating women as erotic objects (West 90). Now on the contrary it is also possible to claim that by showing women as sexual beings, this is a form of visual emancipation from the previous notions of not inhabiting a sexual drive.

In Vienna “psychoanalysis by way of medicine to art, minds everywhere were concentrated on sex, whether with a view to its suppression or its emancipation” (Klaus 47). When we look at Schiele’s work Reclining Nude with Yellow Towel we see a nude woman seated who has her head tilted to the side so that it becomes horizontal, to create the illusion of falling over. The diagonals of her dark stockings draw us toward her vagina, marked by dark pubic hair, a vertical accent at odds with the horizontal accent of the dark hair of her head.

Because of the position of her legs and contours of her body pose we can speculate that she is meant to be gazed upon as a sexual object. Otto Dix once said that “the end product of nude figures is the very things that caused them to be made in the first place: the demands of sexuality, the exhibitionist craving for sexual display” (Klaus 46). If we look at more of Egon Schiele’s works we see how we objectifies woman as he places them on the paper alone as if she is meant to be completely at the mercy of the gazer.

He draws them with the face as an after thought and spends more time on the execution of her body and action. The woman is a puppet, expressionless with no individuality. In doing this, he has removed the humanity from her, making her merely a body upon which her hands, and presumably the fantasies of the artist and viewer, play (Kraus 49). “Schiele’s drawings of the female nude are about his profound ambivalence toward woman. His attitude is typically male: He is drawn to her outer appearance, but disappointed by her “inner” reality” (Kuspit).

In the book Egon Schiele: Art, Sexuality and Viennese Modernism it states that Schiele’s drawings are revelations of his personal sexual emotions and his own personal discoveries about the actual form of the human body. Now we can look at the works by Schiele as a form of emancipation from the oppression of sexual drive that was present in fin-de-siecle Vienna. We can look at Schiele’s work Seated Female Nude, Elbows Resting on Right Knee, the woman is placed on the page totally alone with no background, it is her alone in her world.

The spread legs covered in black stockings move the viewer’s eyes straight to the sexual organs and then up to her face. She looks straight back at the view as if to probe they to question their self as a sexual being; it makes you think. The suppression of natural impulses was amplified by the notion that if “young people were not enlightened about the presence of these forces, they would forget their own sexual urges” (Kraus 104). The people of fin-de-siecle Vienna were completely oppressed of the nature of sexual urges and created mental illness and unhealthy citizens (Kraus 104).

Children were not even allowed to wash their own sexual organs since this only led “to sexual stimuli” (Kraus 104). This oppression no doubt led to confusion and self-image issues. It could be argued that Schiele’s drawing of the female body were a form of togetherness that females could be aware of as sexual beings. Next we need to look at Oskar Kokoschka and his relationship with women and how it manifested itself in his works. Kokoschka had an extremely important love affair with Alma Mahler. So many of his drawings and painting are of her. Kokoschka was a very jealous lover who would not allow her to look or talk to anyone (Weidinger 52).

She also was forced to wear a dress that closed around her neck and wrists and was not allowed to cross her legs when she sat down. He even attempted to force her to marry him without her knowledge or approval (Weidinger 53). In a letter written to Alma by one of her friends it states that Alma cannot change him into someone who would respect her and not humiliate her (Weidinger 53). Alma eventually left Kokoschka, which led him to order a life-size replica of Alma so that whilst still using her as a subject for painting he could “establish some human contact with her,” (Weidinger 90).

The need for a woman as models and images of sex, beauty, and love engages its self into the Secessionists lives and works. The Secessionists did do its part in supporting and engaging in female business enterprises in Vienna. Gustav Klimt was a financial support for the three Floge sisters fashion design business in Casa Piccola on Mariahilferstrasse 1B which was under exclusively female management (Natter, Fischer 35). Klimt was very interested in fashion and could be considered one of the first fashion photographers (Natter, Volker 43). Klimt’s partner Emilie Floge most likely inspired the fashion of his subjects. Floge made regular visits to Paris that kept her well informed of the latest developments, and she most likely advised Klimt in these matter” (Natter, Volker 43). Floge’s fashion sense influenced the secessionist and how they portrayed women in matter of dress. Women of fin-de-siecle Vienna were aware that they were built bigger then the women of Paris and in response to oppressive clothing the women at the Floge enterprise created the reform dress.

This dressed allowed woman to move freely and breath, a form of emancipation for the ladies of Vienna. Emilie Floge was one of the first to commission the Wiener Werkstratte” (Brandstatter 11). Also it just so happens that the textile and fashion proved to be Wiener Werkstratte’s most successful commercial branches (Brandstatter 299). Even though he did not necessarily comply with current fashion trends his painting of women were influenced by this fashion enterprise. In the Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer 1 you can see the influence of dress and fashion aesthetic. She is wearing a form of reform dress that showed her “denial of society’s expectations” (Natter, Volker 116).

Yet Klimt makes the ornament around her body seem to engulf and entrap her. Adele was a woman that did not wish to follow in the shadow of men but she wanted to learn and was not happy at home, which was not normal for a young woman at the time (Natter, Volker 118). Klimt shows Adele in the lights of fashion and attempt of personal emancipation from societies norms in Vienna. The feministic movements of the time and the new shaping of patriarchal attitudes and theories towards women influenced the artists of the secession but the extent in which they did is shaped into a positive and negative association with the emancipation of women.

The artists of the secession where men and it is because of this fact and the secessions views of women are exclusively that of a male gaze. The Secession even had a exhibition titled The Life of Woman but only had shown art from male artists and the attitude of the exhibition was that of the woman as loyal wife and companion for husband throughout his life (Natter 71). The women of the time were subject to the degrading images of their gender as femme fatale creatures of fear as well. It is interesting to study how the secessionists engaged themselves with the female enterprise.

Also with the visual responses to female emancipation attempts whether it is in a cry of love, sexuality, or positive/negative social views. The women of fin-de-siecle Vienna were portrayed in art exclusively as the male artist was to see and interpret them, which is something of an interesting pit to dig around in. Finally the woman of Vienna at this time were socially constructed around men and were doing something to take back the holds of their image as humans that artists of the Secession in Vienna held. “And it would serve them all right all of them, [men] they’ve brought me up to sell myself in one way or another…”

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