Tuesday, 3 January 2017


The representation of women during the period of the Fin de Siècle is one that denotes a major shift in the history of women. To give you a feel for the time, think Gustav Klimt, Moulin Rouge, Munch’s ‘Scream’. It was a whirlwind time of change and hope. The turn of the century had allowed new ideas in and this changed the perception of women. On one hand, women were beginning to exercise their rights, obtain more freedom and exercise their power in politics. On the other, they were deemed as ‘stupid, evil, or passive’ (West, 1993: 86). The secessionist taste came into the equation which characterised ‘tall, slender women with flat chests and narrow hips’ (Fliedl, 2006: 203). Along with this intriguing representation of women, and the new freedom they’d gained, a new woman emerged as the ‘Femme Fatale’. 

This is perhaps the most delicious side of women as when the Femme Fatale became displayed in public images she showcased the sexual desire behind both the artist and women. I am not of course, (just as a disclaimer) claiming that this was within every single women or artist. But women could now display their sexuality, their independence and their power over men. This is evident in the works of Gustav Klimt and in particular his work Judith (1901). 

For those who don’t know the story behind Judith, this little ole lady conveys the predator role and was seen as extremely intimidating to the gaze. It’s a story out of the bible which Klimt modernises to portray the modern day woman. Judith is a widow, upset with her Jewish countrymen for losing faith in God to deliver them from their foreign conquerors. She cleverly befriends then Army General, Holofernes, and gains access to his tent, decapitates him and takes his head back to her countrymen. Ta-da! She is a woman combing both sex and murder. Easy tiger. Klimt’s work is that of a genius here, combing both dark mythology with the contemporary life. s itself poses as more of a danger to contemporary society as it confirms the fears that woman can and will manipulate men perhaps with a fatal climax.  Through Judith, Klimt hopes to send a message to other artists and society to be cautious of these prevailing women as their control can lead to destruction.

Other images of women by Klimt show them as the object of male fantasy. Take Danae for instance. 

Danae is a beautiful mythical creature that is in his work complete sexual fantasy. It’s likely to have been a prostitute Klimt paid to pleasure herself in front of him. In which ‘the entire female body [w]as an appendage to the genitals’ (Fliedl, 2006: 208) and suggests that Klimt held up to his reputation as the mad, bad artist filled with sexual desire by painting many women in sexual positions. We can take this two ways, Klimt either objectifies her into his definition of sexual immortality, or she is in control of her own pleasure and thus a master of her own sexuality. As the narrative of Danae had been carried out many times by great artists such as Titian, Rembrandt and Correggio, Klimt has marked his stance on this erotica previously played down as pure classical imagery and I’d argue Klimt is taking the primal stance that this woman is in charge.

The Femme Fatale is only one of the delicious images of characters portrayed throughout Art History. Klimt is only one artist. I hope you found reading this as pleasurable as I did writing it. 

Author : Violet Glenton

Fliedl, G. Gustav Klimt. 1862-1918. The World in Female Form. (Italy: Benedikt Taschen, 1994).
West, S. Icons of Womanhood. Fin de Siècle.(London: Bloombury Publishing Limited, 1993). pp86-121.

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