The Woman Question
Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka
At the turn of the twentieth century, “the woman question” was widely debated in Europe and the United States. Though discussions of woman’s intrinsic nature recur throughout Western intellectual history, the industrial revolution had given the issue exceptional urgency. The decline of the agrarian economy forced many poor women into low-paying menial jobs or prostitution. A bourgeois woman expected to receive material support from her husband, but if she failed to marry, was widowed or divorced, she had no meaningful professional options. Demands for equal pay, expanded educational opportunities, property and voting rights fueled the fin-de-siècle women’s movement.
This challenge to the patriarchy provoked a particularly volatile reaction in Austria-Hungary. The Viennese capital had experienced enormous growth in the second half of the nineteenth century, attracting immigrants from across the vast multinational Empire. Ethnic tensions, housing shortages, poverty and income inequality rose dramatically and could not adequately be remedied by the moribund Habsburg court or its ossified bureaucracy. As the Empire began to fragment, gender became an overarching preoccupation that subsumed subordinate conflicts involving national identity, socioeconomic class and political ideology. From scientific thinkers such as Sigmund Freud and Richard Krafft-Ebing to self-proclaimed “experts” like Otto Weininger, from the playwright Arthur Schnitzler to the artists Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka, Vienna’s leading intellectuals were seemingly obsessed with sex.
To this day, no one has succeeded in fully teasing apart the intertwined strands of sex (which is biological) and gender (which is socially constructed). Attempts to answer the “woman question” are invariably shaped by the biases of a given time. Men tend to define “femininity” in accordance with their own agenda, and women, likewise influenced by patriarchal surroundings, are often complicit in these efforts. Both Freud and Vienna’s bourgeois feminists thought that female identity is rooted in motherhood. Marianne Hainisch, founder of the League for Extended Women’s Education and the Federation of Austrian Women’s Associations, declared that women are superior to men owing to an innate propensity for “devotion, self-sacrifice and humility.” Hainisch’s acolyte, the progressive educator Eugenie Schwarzwald, wanted to lead humanity back to “the primal mother.” Freud categorically insisted that women devote themselves to raising children. Female intellectual or professional ambition, he averred, was symptomatic of unhealthy penis envy.
Science has frequently been used to muster ostensibly objective evidence in support of subjective gender stereotypes. Charles Darwin believed women are inferior to men, and misogynistic writers such as Weininger (whose 1903 tract Sex and Character was a bestseller) happily expanded on this notion. Evolution, it was said, gave women smaller bones and brains than men, making them inherently weaker and stupider. Just as hermaphroditic life forms gradually evolved into creatures with two distinct genders, theorists suggested that the human sexes had become more sharply differentiated over time. Gender parity came to be associated with the threat of devolution or degeneration, and human progress with male dominance.
Under the larger rubric of the fin-de-siècle “woman question,” female sexuality received special scrutiny. For centuries males had been associated with civilization, culture, spirituality and intelligence, and females with primitivism, nature, lust and instinct. Now this dichotomy was given a Darwinian spin: females were not just creatures of nature, they were consumed by their biological imperative. “Woman is devoted totally to sexual matters, that is to say, to the spheres of begetting and reproduction,” Weininger noted disdainfully. More progressive thinkers, opposed to the constraints of bourgeois morality, were delighted by such allegations of rampant nymphomania. Writing about Klimt’s nudes, the critic Hermann Bahr enthused that, “everything about the woman belongs to lust.” The architect Adolf Loos and his cronies, writers Peter Altenberg and Karl Kraus, believed woman’s sole purpose was to inspire man with her sensuous allure. Yet Loos and Kraus shared Altenberg’s opinion that “woman sucks us dry, spiritually.” Even liberal views of female sexuality were often tinged with misogyny.
Countering the image of unfettered female lust projected by Weininger, Freud and Krafft-Ebing maintained that sexual desire is not “normal” in a woman. Less incompatible than they seem, these divergent perspectives reflect a shared fear of female libido, as well as the class-based nature of contemporary sexual mores. Bourgeois girls were indeed instructed to suppress their erotic proclivities, while their brothers were encouraged to “sow their wild oats” with prostitutes, shop-girls, maidservants and the like. Viennese society affirmed the age-old split between the Madonna (exemplified by Freud’s frigid mothers) and the whore (judged “inherently wanton”). Klimt, Schiele and Kokoschka adhered in differing ways to this double standard, which influenced both their relationships with and their depictions of the opposite sex.
Klimt never married, but early in adulthood, he developed an abiding friendship with Emilie Flöge, a talented dress designer some twelve years his junior. It is not clear whether their relationship was sexual in nature. Some speculate that Klimt maintained a platonic distance because he had contracted syphilis. In any event, the artist had numerous liaisons with charwomen and models, whose social standing was scarcely better than that of prostitutes. He seems to have had little sustained contact with his various illegitimate children, and provided scant emotional or financial support to their mothers. Klimt was much in demand as a society portraitist, and it is tempting to imagine that he occasionally slept with the bored bourgeois ladies who were his chief clients. However there is no evidence that such was the case, and it is more likely that the class divide between these genteel ladies and the comparatively unrefined Klimt was unbridgeable. Friederike Maria Beer, who was painted by him in 1916, described the artist as animalistic. “He even smelled like an animal,” she recalled.
The Madonna/whore dichotomy is viscerally fleshed out in Klimt’s art. His portraits, especially the gold ones, explicitly reference Byzantine icons. The women are cloaked from neck to toe in sumptuous abstract garments that give little sense of an underlying physical body. The only reference to sexuality is coded in discreet symbols of ova and sperm, which are sometimes tucked into the folds of the dress. Nor do the sitters reveal much in the way of personality. The contemporary critic Bertha Zuckerkandl remarked approvingly that the artist did away with “any individual characteristics, so that only the typical, a sublime extract of the female type, is captured in pure style.” Weininger phrased similar thoughts more harshly: “In…the absolute female…the ground for the assumption of a soul is absent.”
If Klimt’s society portraits have the decorative sterility of icons, his allegorical nudes and his drawings are awash in sexuality. The female nude, of course, is a venerable subject in Western art, but female sexuality per se is a more vexed matter. Traditional paintings of nudes were created by male artists, to be seen and enjoyed by male viewers. In Freudian terms, however, masculine pleasure in such works was imperiled by castration anxiety, a consequence of the woman’s “missing” penis. The female nude therefore had to be transformed from an active threat into an inert, depersonalized object via a process of visual pruning and containment. Beauty was foremost among the devices artists used to this end. The classical female nude was unblemished, a perfect specimen of nubile flesh and soothing, voluptuous form. Often her pubic area was discreetly masked. Beyond this, by placing the nude in a mythical, historical or Biblical context, the artist could subordinate her eroticism to a higher moral purpose. The nude’s subservience was further affirmed by passivity; typically she reclined. Single-point perspective firmly pinioned her within the picture frame and distanced her from the male observer. Looking was the man’s prerogative. The female nude did not usually respond to the artist’s gaze; if she engaged with the hypothetical viewer, it was in the form of a flirtation rather than a challenge.
Gustav Klimt was among the first artists to explore female sexuality as a subject in its own right. And he was widely attacked for doing so. Forgoing standard historical or mythological settings in his allegories, he allowed his nudes to float freely, without any mollifying moral context. He dared depict pregnant nudes, merging the narratives of the Madonna and the whore to suggest that there are no virgin births. In many respects, however, Klimt’s nudes reflect the gender stereotypes common to his time and place. By repeatedly representing naked women as amphibious creatures in such paintings as Moving Water, he affirmed the prevalent belief that females are primitive and irrational. As evidenced by the artist’s many femmes fatales, he shared with Weininger and Freud a fear of unrestrained female libido. Female sexuality is brought under control in Klimt’s later erotic drawings. Like traditional examples of the genre, these nudes are beautiful, passive and often oblivious to the point of catatonia. There is nothing here to disturb the primacy of the male gaze.
Egon Schiele grew up in a household dominated by women, and he was especially close to his younger sister, Gerti. Gerti was his most important early model, but by 1910 most of the artist’s female subjects came from the Viennese underclass. These included the indigent patients of the gynecologist Erwin Graff, vagrant children and teenaged prostitutes. We do not know the names of any of these models, but two young women recur frequently in Schiele’s work from late 1910 and 1911, and it is evident that he had sexual relations with at least one of them. The artist’s first serious girlfriend, Wally Neuzil, was likewise a model. In these dalliances, Schiele conformed to then-standard bourgeois custom, which dictated that prior to marriage a young man should gain sexual experience in the demi-monde. He reclaimed his bourgeois birthright in 1915, rejecting Wally and marrying Edith Harms, the daughter of a civil servant. Edith was embarrassed to pose naked, less it seems out of prudery than because she feared being recognized by acquaintances. The artist, for his part, had difficulty assuming the role of bourgeois husband, and there is evidence that within two years of the wedding he had begun to cheat. By 1918, when Edith became pregnant with their first child, she felt isolated and estranged from her partner’s world.
Profoundly influenced by Klimt, Schiele picked up where the master left off in his explorations of female sexuality. But Schiele was only twenty when he executed his first artistically mature works, and emotionally he was still an adolescent. Simultaneously terrified and enthralled by the erotic potency of his lover/models, the artist granted the female nude an unprecedented degree of autonomy. Unwittingly, he violated almost every convention of the genre. The classical ideal of harmony was not just ignored, it was forcefully undermined by contorted poses and awkward cropping. Far from being passive receptacles for male desire, these nudes are bluntly confrontational, often returning the artist’s gaze. Nonetheless it is impossible to know what the women are thinking or whether these images depict their reactions to Schiele, or his reactions to them. It is not clear who is subject and who is object. The artist’s compositional strategies further undermine this distinction. Frequently, he had his model lie on a mattress placed on the floor, while he perched above her on a stool or ladder. By omitting any surrounding detail from his drawings and frequently giving recumbent figures a vertical reading, he created a profound sense of spatial dislocation. The resulting tension between the subject and the edge of the picture plane calls into question the ability of the latter to contain the former. Instead of receding comfortably into the distance, Schiele’s nudes appear to jump out at the viewer.
Schiele’s marriage in 1915 was accompanied by a change in his approach to female subject matter. His nudes became less disruptive, more conventionally beautiful. Though the artist was still prone to spatial dislocation, the figures were more realistic, the lines smoother, the forms rounder. At the same time, Schiele’s experiences with Wally and Edith had given him a deeper understanding of the female psyche. His later portraits of women, particularly those of the mercurial, frequently unhappy Edith, are characterized by a newly tender specificity. However, a comparison of these portraits with photos of Wally and Edith also reveals distinct differences between image and reality. The faces in Schiele’s representations are softer, more delicate, the eyes and lips more pronounced. Melding conventional idealization with a new acknowledgment of female sexual empowerment, Schiele’s later work anticipates the images of femininity that have come to dominate contemporary popular culture.
Unlike Klimt and Schiele, Kokoschka from the outset had difficulty relating to the opposite sex. His first significant artistic achievement, an adult fairy tale titled The Dreaming Youths, was inspired by an unrequited passion for Lilith Lang, a classmate at the Vienna School of Applied Arts. The artist’s text reveals an aggressivity that would become more pronounced in his next literary effort, Murderer, Hope of Women. By the time the play debuted at the 1909 “Kunstschau” (an exhibition of international modern art), Kokoschka had been adopted as Adolf Loos’s protégé. Clearly the young artist shared the misogynistic views of Loos’s circle. In Kokoschka’s play, the male protagonist, drained by female lust, regains his strength by killing the woman.
Kokoschka’s affair with Alma Mahler, widow of the composer Gustav Mahler, exemplifies the fin-de-siècle battle between the sexes. Oskar considered Alma, whom he met in 1912, his “maternal genius” and wanted to control her completely. Over a two-and-a-half- year period, he pursued her with the crazed tenacity of a stalker, bombarding her with more than 400 love letters and hovering outside her home to check on her fidelity. “I will not have any gods before me,” the artist commanded. “I won’t be diverted, you are of one mind with me and will live with me until I have pulled out by the roots everything in you that bewilders me, chills me and makes me unhappy.” Alma evidently reciprocated Oskar’s love, but she refused to bend to his dictates and ultimately felt compelled to leave him. As recounted by Kokoschka in numerous allegorical paintings, drawings and prints, the man in this story is no longer a victorious murderer of woman, but rather a martyr to female perfidy. In a final testament to the doomed affair, Pietà, Alma plays the role of the Virgin Mary, with her lover as the dead Christ.
For a number of reasons, the nude has a less significant place in Kokoschka’s work than in the art of Klimt and Schiele. The latter two artists were trained in the classical manner, and life drawing was central to their studio practice. Kokoschka, as a student at the School of Applied Art, focused more on decorative assignments such as posters and book illustration. Furthermore, because Klimt and Schiele had frequent sexual encounters with the demi-monde, the roles of model and lover were for them interchangeable. However Kokoschka’s early love interests, Lilith and Alma, were above him in social station. It is not clear whether Lilith, then sixteen, modeled for The Dreaming Youths. The bony, angular figure of “Li” in the illustrations is in any case improbably androgynous, the sort of “Kind-Mädchen” (child-girl) favored by Loos and his friend Altenberg. Fear of adult female sexuality continued to haunt Kokoschka’s later nudes, which are largely devoid of erotic appeal.
Given that Alma Mahler was generally considered the most desirable woman in Vienna—a living femme fatale—Kokoschka’s pictures of her are surprisingly unattractive. Alma herself does not seem to have posed nude. Rather Oskar used models from the School of Applied Art as “body doubles,” onto whom he projected his lover’s features. Broad in the thigh, small of breast, Alma (who had borne two children) was more mother than sex object in Kokoschka’s depictions. Her face, and in fact all the faces in the artist’s portraits of women, lack the sort of idealization seen in Schiele’s later work. It is hard to imagine falling in love with Kokoschka’s Galatea—as her original creator, Pygmalion, did in Greek myth. Kokoschka’s approach to female portraits differed not at all from his approach to male portraits. The artist’s refusal to beautify his images of women may reflect his own resentments, but the work also presages a more gender-neutral view of the female persona.
Gustav Klimt died of complications following a stroke in early 1918. Egon Schiele, his wife and their unborn child succumbed to the Spanish Influenza epidemic later that year. Oskar Kokoschka lived until 1980, enjoying an international renown in the immediate postwar period that eluded his compatriots until the final decades of the twentieth century. The work of all three artists remains as pertinent today as it was at the turn of the last century, because the “woman question” remains unanswered. The old stereotypes of the dangerous femme fatale and the vacuous, submissive sex object persist in the popular imagination. In our visually saturated culture, images of women are ubiquitous. Men are still the subjects of much visual practice, the ones who do the looking, while women (in the famous words of critic John Berger) “watch themselves being looked at.” Women harness their sexual powers to collude in their objectification, struggling to meet the unrealistic standards of beauty put forth by the mass media. The media’s feminine ideal fosters feelings of inadequacy not only in women, but also in men, who fear rejection and are ashamed if their mate fails to measure up.
Science has so far been of little help in sorting all this out. We are told that men prefer women with hourglass figures and baby-like faces because these traits signify fertility—the implication being that natural selection favors traditional gender stereotypes. Brain imaging makes it possible to track the similarities and differences between male and female sexual response, but it is hard to ascertain whether these responses are biologically predetermined or socially conditioned. Although the binary distinction between masculine and feminine, nature and nurture, seems increasingly untenable, it continues to confound. The recognition that biological sex, gender identity and sexual orientation are three different things further confuses matters. At the same time, women have yet to achieve full equality with men, and many men still find women at once threatening and alluring. The battle between the sexes has reached a stalemate, with no clear resolution in sight.
The present exhibition recapitulates, in abridged form, The Women of Klimt, Schiele and Kokoschka, which Galerie St. Etienne co-director Jane Kallir curated for the Belvedere Museum, Vienna, in 2015-16. We would like to warmly thank the many lenders who made it possible to reassemble that show on American soil. The Galerie St. Etienne’s exhibition coordinator, Courtney Donner, also provided invaluable contributions to the project. Copies of the catalogue for the Belvedere exhibition (240 pages, 231 color illustrations, hardcover) may be ordered for $60.00, plus $15.00 for domestic handling & shipping; New York residents, please add sales tax. Checklist entries are accompanied by their citations in the Belvedere catalogue and their catalogue raisonné numbers, where applicable.