Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Gender and eros

The Women’s Movement began with a historic gathering at Seneca Falls, NY in 1848. At first its main strength was found in English-speaking countries, but gradually the movement became influential on the Continent as well. While women’s suffrage was rightly viewed as the central issue, admission to higher education was the key to moving into the professions. Here again, the US led the way. In Central Europe women had to wait until the end of the century to be admitted to universities. But admitted they were. It is this background that must be assessed in reckoning with the contribution of women artists to the avant-garde, including such figures as Paula Modersohn-Becker, Gabriele Münter, Sonia (Terk) Delaunay, and Natalia Goncharova.

Not surprisingly women’s advances engendered various types of backlash. Arguably the upsurge in misogyny evident at the turn of the century is part of this trend. A less sinister version is the idea of separate spheres. Just as the upper middle-class man was expected to go off to the office, where his executive talents were fully engaged, so the wife would take charge of the household. Upper middle-class wives were expected to arrange the shopping, manage the servant staff, and arrange for the home to be tastefully furnished. The large department stores that sprang up in the closing decades of the nineteenth century catered to this discerning female clientele. In the interests of furnishing their homes in the latest fashions, these privileged women became experts in the fields of textiles, wallpaper, and furniture. Must of this work displayed traits of perennial abstraction. Such concerns lie behind the large contribution of women to the Arts and Crafts Movement, and later to the Wiener Werkstätte and even the Bauhaus.

We turn now to a less decorous subject. The nineteenth century discovered sex. Even though he died in 1814, the shadow of the Marquis de Sade extended over the entire nineteenth century and beyond. Interest in Sade showed a continuing ambivalence, and he elicited both prudish condemnation and guilty fascination.

The second half of the nineteenth century saw the emergence of the discipline of sex research or sexology. Its first classic was Pathologia sexualis by the German physician Richard von Krafft-Ebing (1840-1902). By a curious serendipity, this book appeared in 1886, the same year as the Symbolist Manifesto. Intended as a forensic reference for doctors and judges, the book assumes a high academic tone. (The “money shots” appear in Latin dress). In the introduction Krafft-Ebing noted that he had "deliberately chosen a scientific term for the name of the book to discourage lay readers." Despite such gestures at deterrence, the volume became a best seller, enjoying many printings and translations.

Krafft-Ebing divided sexual deviance into four categories: paradoxia, sexual desire at the wrong time of life, i.e. childhood or old age; anesthesia, insufficient desire; hyperesthesia, excessive desire; and paraesthesia, sexual desire for the wrong goal or object. The last category included homosexuality (or "contrary sexual feeling"), sexual fetishism, sadism, masochism, and so on. Later the writer revised his negative views about homosexuality.

Following a traditional stance, Krafft-Ebing portrayed women as passive. Popular sentiment, however, contradicted this view. The theme of the femme fatale, powerful but dangerous, permeated art and literature. More positive was the image of the New Woman, personified by Nora in Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” (1879), in which the heroine broke out of her domestic confinement to find her own way.

While the term “fetishism” goes back to the eighteenth century, it was Krafft-Ebing who popularized it in the sexual sense. Fetishism is what we would now term a paraphilia, that is, something ancillary to the “main event” in sexual relations. Some of the objects involved--shoes, uniforms, umbrellas and the like--also appeared in art works, though not necessarily bearing a fetishistic charge. The German novelist Leopold von Sacher Masoch (1836-1895) described what came to be known as masochism. The scholars Henry Havelock Ellis, Magnus Hirschfeld, Albert Moll, and Marc-André Raffalovich issued major publications on homosexuality. In England, Edward Carpenter, who had elected to lead an openly homosexual lifestyle, combined enthusiasm for Walt Whitman with a somewhat vague credo of the "New Life." Others focused on androgyny and hermaphroditism. These concerns reached a broader public through literary treatments by such authors as Jean Lorrain, Marcel Proust, Rachilde (Marguerite Eymery), Frank Wedekind, and Oscar Wilde

During the nineteenth century respectable society sought to draw a bright line between “normal sexuality” and “perversion.” However, curiosity about the latter could not be stopped. Indeed, the more such “immorality” was denounced, the more interest in it grew.

Almost by definition, the decadent movement involved all sorts of sexual heterodoxy. Joris-Karl Huysmans’ A Rebours (“Against Nature”) hints at various unnatural acts committed by its hero Des Esseintes, though the text is not very detailed. By contrast the homosexual liaison between Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud became a public scandal. Both poets wrote explicit verse about male-male sexual relations. During the 1890s the trials of Oscar Wilde made his name synonymous with homosexuality.

In the 1890s the artist Aubrey Beardsley became notorious for his erotic frankness, especially in his illustrations for Aristophanes' Lysistrata and Wilde's Salome. Both sets of illustrations belong to the vein of the femme fatale, the powerful, but perverse woman. His works radiate a kind of generalized sentiment of the polymorphous perverse. Necrophilia is the theme of the Salome works by Beardsley, Moreau, and others.

Villiers de l’Isle Adam’s novel L’Eve future is about a man who has an android created for him to simulate his ideal love—a kind of desiring machine.

In 1830 Honoré de Balzac had published a story entitled “Passion in the Desert” about a soldier who has a kind of affair with a lioness. This animal theme was picked up by Fernand Khnopf in his “Caresses of the Sphinx” of 1898. Several years earlier, in fact, Franz von Stuck had produced a “Kiss of the Sphinx.”

Eventually viewers began to look for sexual titillation everywhere. Thus the whiplash lines and luxuriant tendrils of art nouveau decoration came to be regarded as subversively erotic.

In truth these themes show a fascinating and varied panorama of erotic diversity. By the end of the century, though, the trend had run its course, not fully to revive again until the 1960s. After 1900 there was a tendency to marginalize these preoccupations, relegating them to the level of pornography. This reaction stemmed in part from the highly publicized Oscar Wilde trials, but probably represented a broader sea change. Reformers drew attention to the ravages of venereal disease, as well as to the scandal of the so-called “white-slave trade,” which involved luring young women into brothels. (Sadly, this horror has revived in Eastern Europe today.) There was a general shift away from "decadence" and “perversity” towards the affirmation of “normality” and "health."

Despite this change in atmosphere, production of pornographic literature continued unabated, much of it written by hack writers and distributed clandestinely. Of exceptional quality are two landmark works by Guillaume Apollinaire, a major poet and articulate supporter of advanced artists. Les onze mille verges (1907) is a bravura performance, running the gamut—heterosexuality, lesbianism, and male homosexuality, as well as scat and sadism. By comparison Apollinaire’s second porno book, Les exploits d’un jeune Don Juan (1911), is more ordinary, though still a page-turner.

In the twentieth century, painterly stylization and abstractionism offered more discreet vehicles for exploring erotic issues. Henri Matisse’s “Joie de Vivre” (1906) showed nudes in a sensual encounter with a lush natural setting, though without explicit sexuality. Others went further. Through veiled forms one could achieve a dignified, nonpornographic rendering of feelings that, expressed baldly, might excite the world's scorn. An example is Vassily Kandinsky's "Garden of Love" (Metropolitan Museum), which glorifies his adulterous relationship with Gabriele Münter. A number of Marsden Hartley's Berlin abstractions represent an abstract version of uniform fetishism in relation to his homosexual love for a Prussian officer. One might think also, a few years earlier, of the colored plates in the Besant-Leadbeater Thought-Forms (1901) illustrating various types of affection. For example, "vague pure affection" assumes a cloud-like form, reddish in the center and pink around the edges. There are also renderings of "vague selfish affection," "definite affection," and "radiating affection." (Charles Webster Leadbeater was homosexual.)

Sex-variant individuals also became significant as critics and patrons of avant-garde art. The most influential of these was the Paris-based Gertrude Stein, an important art collector and a major writer. In such works as Tender Buttons she achieved a literary stylization that compares with painterly abstraction. Her way of writing also allowed her to allude in a veiled manner to her love for other women.

REFERENCES. Vern L. Bullough, Science in the Bedroom: A History of Sex Research, New York, 1994; Bram Dijkstra, Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin de Siècle Culture, New York, 1988; Mario Praz, The Romantic Agony, Oxford, 1951; Rose-Carol Washton Long, "Kandinsky's Vision of Utopia as a Garden of Love," Art Journal (Spring 1983), 50-66.


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