Tag Archives: Femme Fatale

Gustav Klimt – Valley of the Dolls

5 Mar

In a transitional period from his ‘erotic-symbolist Golden phase’ to his highly decorative and vibrant Japanese inspired phase, Klimt painted these gorgeous and aloof femme fatales: a subject so popular in fin de siecle. These two ladies are not mythical creatures, they look like real Viennese women and they’re impatient, they’re waiting, wrapped in their fur, adorned with the finest Art Nouveau jewellery, they’re glancing at you with disdain, they’re throwing darts in the eyes of their lovers.

1909-gustav-klimt-lady-with-hat-and-feather-boa-1909-4Gustav Klimt, Lady with Hat and Feather Boa, 1909

End of the first decade of the twentieth century brought some changes for Klimt; his gorgeous studies in gold with intricate details and stylised forms were slowly becoming passé. Rise of the Expressionism denoted the end of his ‘golden phase’. In his paintings such as ‘The Kiss’, Klimt painted his figures in shining yellow fabrics, decorated with tiny golden leaves, against luminous golden backgrounds, floating in a highly decorative world of his imagination. This excessive decorative element in his art prevented him from delving into psychological depth and achieving the emotional intensity of the portrayed figure, and that’s something that painters like Schiele and Kokoschka did very well . In 1909, Klimt travelled to Paris where he discovered the works of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and the Fauvists. These encounters with the new streams in the artistic world, as well as his friendship with the younger artist Schiele, all inspired him to reinvent his style.

La Belle Epoque fashion looks as if it was made for femme fatales – it’s exuberant, it’s glamorous; wide-brimmed hats with feathers, fur muffs, voluminous hairstyles, large choker necklaces, long flowing dresses with lace details… Klimt was very much in tune with the fashion of the day because his life companion Emilie Flöge happened to be a fashion designer. Klimt also helped in designing the dresses by making the patterns. In this transitional period, Klimt dressed his femme fatales not in gold but in lace and perfumes and jewels and rouge; he tamed them, he made them into fashionable little dolls who are impatiently waiting to be played with, to be admired. These creatures are vain and aloof but not as sinister and destructive as Franz Stuck’s dark female figures filled with lust and anxiety. Klimt also tamed his lust for excessive ornamentation by painting the background in one colour instead of the usual vibrant kaleidoscope of shapes and patterns.

Painting Lady with Hat and Feather Boa has a strangely dark colour palette, unusual for Klimt’s typical vibrant pinks, yellows and greens. The lady has an amazing face expression; her downward tilted eyes are fixated on something on her right which we can’t see, and her eyebrows are sharp and angry. Her face has been haunting me for weeks! And that peacock blue line on her hat, and the feathers, painted in swirling, near abstract motions. Her wild red hair, and gorgeous lips peeking from that feather boa, oh she’s a real femme fatale. You can imagine her getting out of the carriage, somewhere on the streets of Vienna, opening her parasol, blind to every eye she meets, with a gaze that says: ‘You’re not fit to polish my boots!’

1910-gustav-klimt-black-feature-hat-1910Gustav Klimt, Black Feather Hat (Lady with Feather Hat), 1910

On the other hand, Black Feather Hat (Lady with Feather Hat) is somewhat different in mood and style. Our redhead beauty above looks gorgeous and vivacious like Klimt’s women usually do, but this one looks a tad different – there’s a subtle nihilism in those white-grey shades, a hint of Egon Schiele and the fin de siecle nervousness. Look at her angular face and the way her hand is painted; it looks like something you’d see on Schiele’s paintings. Truth is, Schiele was initially inspired by Klimt, but Klimt also learner something from his young independent-minded pupil. Again we see this gorgeous La Belle Epoque fashion, and again this femme fatale is looking into the distance, we don’t know what occupied her attention, or whose face lingers on her mind.

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Franz Stuck: Dark Female Figures in a World of Anxiety and Lust

6 Sep

If you gaze at dark and richly textured paintings of a German Symbolist painter Franz Stuck for too long, you become spiritually drowned in a world of ‘anxiety and lust’, to quote Carl Jung. That peculiar mood of his paintings is as intoxicating as it is heavy and suffocating, radiating the typical turn of the century claustrophobia and interest in eroticism.

1903. The Sin (Die Sünde) - Franz Stuck

Franz Stuck, The Sin (Die Sünde), 1903

Last August, while I was in Berlin, I had a chance to see Stuck’s The Sin and Circe in Alte Nationalgalerie where they are part of the museum’s permanent collection. I remember it clearly, the feeling of being completely and fully mesmerised by hypnotic power of Stuck’s vamp femme fatales; dark eyed Eve luring from the shadow, and Circe, clad in purple, offering a gold cup, and smiling lustfully with moist, half-open lips. The day was rainy and gloomy, the chamber quiet and solitary because most visitors chose to see the Im-Ex exhibition that was on at the time. Even in the middle of the day, painting The Sin seemed frightening and grandiose because of its dimensions, but how magical and sinister at the same time would it look at night, with a few tall candles as only sources of light, shining in brilliant Byzantine golden flames, and a sofa you could lie on, smoke opium and immerse into dreams, watched upon by those big, darkly oriental eyes. I think that kind of experience would be the closest to an acid trip I could possibly imagine.

If you observe Stuck’s oeuvre, you’ll notice that darkness, like heavy November fog, lurks from every corner. World that he created in his paintings is a mythical one, where anxiety and erotic fantasies emerge from every canvas. Sometimes his paintings, just like those of Edvard Munch, can be a tad difficult to digest, at least for me, as they seem to lurk the viewer to the end of the cliff; first to be amazed, and then – to fall. I feel emotionally drained and ill after looking at them for too long, that’s the power of art for you all. Stuck portrays the dark side of mythology and female dominance and images that arise from his artworks are those of suffering and agony, twisted bodies, murky colours and strong contrasts, and ever popular in Symbolism, figures of wicked and possessive femme fatales.

So, what exactly is the true subject of his art, the spiritual fall of the Western society of his own secret Freudian fantasies?

Stu-04-NatGalFranz Stuck, Tilla Durieux as Circe, c. 1913

Stuck painted the subject of Eve’s sin and the consequent Fall of Humanity many times. The version I’ve put here, from 1903, isn’t the most striking, but it is the one I saw. In The Sin, Eve looks directly at the viewer, ironically smiling. Her sickly white, yet robust body emerges from the dark background. Two large, dark, protruding almond shaped eyes resemble those of Luisa Casati, an extravagant Italian heiress and a great example of fin de sicle decadency in lifestyle. A garishly green shadow hides her face. Framed with masses of Rossettian hair so dark it seems to have been woven from darkness itself. And then, as if the painting wasn’t unsettling enough, you notice the snake wrapped around Eve’s body, with thin piercing pupils and purplish skin that distinguishes it from the pervading darkness. If you don’t move your eyes, it will draw you in too.

Circe is visually brighter, painted in three vibrant colours; auburn for the hair, dark yellow with hints of olive brown for the cup, and lastly – purple, like dried larkspur flowers. Three colours against the pitch dark background and again, that strange sickly pale skin, were enough to uplift the mood of the painting. In body sculpting, Stuck slightly reminds me of Burne-Jones. Look at her purple tunic that sensuously falls, then her earrings and the luminous cup. Who wouldn’t be tempted to drink from it, even if the price was entering the kingdom of death and running into the arms of Persephone, a fellow mythological creature that played around with fin de siecle imagination. Stuck’s Circe reminds me of silent film stars of 1920s, such as Theda Bara and Pola Negri, who often played roles of vamp femme fatales.

Paul Delvaux – The Strollers

16 Feb

I believe in the future resolution in these two states, dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality, if one may so speak.’ (Andre Breton)

1947. The Strollers, Paul Delvaux (1897-1994)Paul Delvaux, The Strollers, 1947

Female bodies, classical architecture, night setting – it must be a work of Paul Delvaux (1897-1994), a Belgian Surrealist painter. Despite the realistic character of objects in his paintings, the all together effect is extraordinary. In compositions of Paul Delvaux, this strangeness arises from the mysterious and alluring dimension of a dream. As if the atmosphere in his paintings and the characters in it are referring solely to the space of dreams. Presumable coldness of the marble contrasts the pale, soft-skinned, nude bodies of two women, and, because of this contrast the painting seems both real and excitingly fantastical an the same time.

Scene depicts two strollers, walking around, what seems to be, an abandoned city. Behind them is a Greek or Roman temple, its white marble shining in the light of a full moon. While the blonde woman is taller, more voluptuous, and seems older and experienced, the other one seems younger and more maiden-like. It seems as if the blonde woman is explaining something to the younger one, and introducing her in a certain trade. However, both of them have lowered their tunics, or pieces of fabric, just enough to reveal their pubic hair. They have a matching headdresses, blue capes, and Egyptian-styled collar necklaces with intricate pattern.

NOTE: All text is referring only to the painting The Strollers, however, I’ve put additional paintings just so you can see Delvaux’s work in general.

1948. In Praise of Melancholy, Paul Delvaux (1897-1994)Paul Delvaux, In Praise of Melancholy, 1948

Still, underneath all that beauty, they seem cold, unattainable, distant figures lost in their own thoughts, aloof and mysterious like some of Catherine Deneuve’s roles. They even look identical, physically, just like all of Delvaux’s females in paintings, they have large almond-shaped eyes, long noses and mocking smiles. Their appearance definitely places them in a realm of dreams. The question arises: is it the artist’s dream, or the dream of those women? Those are the two ways you can observe Delvaux’s art.

Stillness of the temples, blueness of the night sky, loneliness of the square, along with these sensual, ideal, but unattainable female figures, all make this painting a bizarre one. Moon has a significant place in Delvaux’s paintings, and here it’s the full moon, which carries connotations by itself. Full moon is ‘symbolic of the height of power, the peak of clarity, fullness and obtainment of desire.* Even without the symbolism, full Moon is a lovely sight, but, as large and white as it is, it cannot shine with such intensity to lighten the whole city. Contrast of lightness and darkness are particularly interesting in Delvaux’s work; women’s bodies are luminous, but the rest of the space is in shadow. There’s a town square behind the women, a desolate place with pieces of stones scattered around. On the left, there’s a reclining woman, half-covered with purple fabric, with a matching headdress. There are two more women gracing the background; two elegant, slender, ghost-like figures in long white dresses with a bluish gleam.

1947. Delvaux The Great Sirens (1947)Paul Delvaux, The Great Sirens, 1947

I feel like there’s a sense of irony in the title of the painting. Title The Strollers evokes a mood of a lazy and carefree spring afternoon, and it’s a perfect title for a work of Impressionism, but Delvaux’s women here appear rather static, and frozen in the moment. It’s important to bring out a few facts in order to fully understand Delvaux’s art. First of all, he didn’t always paint like this. In the 1930s he was influenced by a Belgian Surrealist painter Rene Magritte, and around 1933 he encountered the Metaphysical art of Giorgio de Chirico, which proved to have an even greater influence on him. A hint of anguished and slightly disturbing mood of Chirico’s paintings is evident in Delvaux’s work as well, but their styles are different.

1967. Paul Delvaux (1897-1994). ‘’Le Canape Bleu [The Blue Sofa]Paul Delvaux, ‘Le Canape Bleu’ (The Blue Sofa), 1967

In Chirico’s desolate and ominous cityscapes, Delvaux added an ever-appealing sensual female figures,thereby achieving that hedonistic and dreamy atmosphere. That specific mood, present in all of Delvaux’s paintings, reminds me of Sergei Rachmaninov’s music, in particular his composition ‘Isle of the Dead’. Delvaux’s frequent depiction of classical architecture can be traced back to his childhood days, spent reading Homer’s poetry, along with studying Greek and Latin language. He even travelled to Rome at one point. Also, for a while Delvaux studied architecture, but didn’t enjoy it, and dropped out after failing a maths test, but it was worth it in the end, because his skill in painting architectural scenes in unquestionable.

Mademoiselle de Lancey by Carolus-Duran

2 Feb

In the pallid light of languishing lamps,
In deep cushions redolent of perfume,
Hippolyta dreamed of the potent caresses
That drew aside the veil of her young innocence.

She was seeking, with an eye disturbed by the storm,
The already distant skies of her naiveté,
Like a voyager who turns to look back
Toward the blue horizons passed early in the day.” (Damned Woman, Baudelaire)

1876. Mademoiselle de Lancey - Charles Auguste Émile DurandCharles Auguste Émile Durand, Mademoiselle de Lancey, 1876

What is this high society beauty, this femme fatale from the glorious days of French Second Empire, thinking about? Reclined on the sofa, surrounded by ‘deep cushions redolent of perfume’, supporting herself with one hand and holding a fan in the other. Her white dress with silver embellishments is exquisite, surely the latest fashion, sumptuous silk or satin. Quite a daring cut of the bodice, revealing both her shoulders and decolletage. Notice how her skirt is elegantly lifted with the intention to expose her lovely ankles and tiny feet in white shoes. Her gown reveals much and at the same time exudes simplicity and elegance. Her crossed legs and the position of her hands indicate dominance both in her chamber, and on the canvas.

Nevertheless, the most interesting part of the painting is her face. Perhaps it is not perfect per se, but it radiates confidence and charm, and awareness of these qualities. Oval porcelain face, large blue eyes, lips in colour of rose hip, forehead framed with dark brown curls. Hair adorned with flowers, hands with a bracelet and a ring: this damned woman is luxury itself, the most desired mistress of Paris, Jezebel, Lilith, Salome, Helen of Troy and Cleopatra of the 19th century Paris. This femme fatale gets what she wants.

She doesn’t need no roses, chocolates, and kisses in the moonlight. You’ll rue the day that you were born if you encounter this enchantress. If she stood up right now, her elegant step would be that of a gazelle, and the sound of her ruffling dress would resemble the finest melodies. This is the kind of woman that Baudelaire wrote poems about

Behold these smiling lips, suave and voluptuous,
Whose ecstasies of arrant self-love give us pause;
The mocking pawkishness of that long languid stare,
Those dainty features framed in luminous light gauze,
Whose every facet says with an all-conquering air:
‘Lo, Pleasure calls and Love crowns my triumphant head!” (Charles Baudelaire – The Mask)

Seems like the painter, Charles Auguste Émile Durand or simply known as Carolus-Duran is less important than the lady he painted. I didn’t say that, but I don’t deny it either. Carolus-Duran is most memorable for his portraits of Second French Empire ladies, and his paintings, as beautiful and appealing as they are, can never compete with those of Monet or Renoir who were his contemporaries. He was accepted by the art critics which speaks for itself.

Kees van Dongen – Femme Fatale in Wild Colours

7 Sep

On the 31st October 1903. an exhibition called Salon d’Autumne first opened and showed works of Edouard Vuillard, Pierre Bonnard, Henri Matisse, Felix Vallotton, Henri Manguin, and with an homage to Gauguin who died seven months earlier. The exhibition was held the next year too but in 1905. rather different works were shown; most of the paintings exhibited were painted in bold, vibrant colours and the simplification of form was evident; Fauvism was born.

1905. Kees van Dongen, Femme Fatale1905. Kees van Dongen – Femme Fatale

Kees van Dongen, a Dutch painter who lived and worked in Paris, was famous for his sensuous and garish portraits of Parisian beauties. Growing up in the outskirts of Rotterdam, van Dongen studied at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in his hometown and there he worked with J. Striening and J.G. Heyberg. From the age of fifteen he was likely to be seen at docs, painting sailors, ships that came from afar and also prostitutes. In 1897. he came to Paris and stayed there for seven months. In December 1899. he came to Paris again, this time for good.

His name became well known after he exhibited three of his works at the controversial Salon d’Autumne in 1905. His paintings, displayed right next to the ones of Matisse, were boldly coloured, sensual and provocative. The exhibition was very well received, and despite some of the critics who deemed the painters as fauves (wild beasts), this proved to be merely a beginning for this new rising art movement – Fauvism. In those times van Dongen, as part of the new wave of avant-garde artists, thought that art needed to be updated, considering it stuck in neo-impressionism. However, Fauvism originated from an extreme development of Van Gogh’s Post-Impressionism fused with Seurat’s Pointillism (other Neo-Impressionists’ pointillist tendencies, such as Signac’s, were influential). Soon Fauvism was transformed from a new avant-garde to a mainstream art movement until the Cubism became dominant, despite the comment of an art critic Camille Mauclair ‘A pot of paint has been flung in the face of the public.

From all of van Dongen’s pots of colour, his Femme Fatale is the most appealing to me. Just look at those vivid reds, warm orange and yellow tones, hints of purple and magnificent greenish flesh; as if this femme fatale was an absinth fairy, enchanting and fatal to its consumers. The way she is holding her green toned breast with those long, jewellery decorated hands and gazing thoughtfully yet seductively at the viewer. Femme is dressed sumptuously in vivid red dress that is uncovering her so wanted treasure and despite all of those feathers in her raven coloured hair and all the heavy makeup and jewellery, she seems highly unimpressed. Centuries earlier gentleman were admiring sensual and plump Boticelli’s beauties, later they hopelessly gazed at Rembrandt’s, Fragonard’s and Winterhalten’s dames but this lady, this early twentieth century Femme Fatale is a modern women; sensuous, startlingly beautiful and – uninterested. This is the femme fatale from the same named song by Velvet Underground ‘Here she comes, you better watch your step/She’s going to break your heart in two, it’s true/It’s not hard to realize/Just look into her false colored eyes/She builds you up to just put you down, what a clown…‘ As everything in art ever was, at least for its time, this was provocative, this was the femme that real ladies were not expected to be, this femme was above social norms and classes, this femme belonged to van Dongen – his Femme Fatale in wild colours.