From femme fatale to powerful woman: the history of gender in the arts explored in a new exhibition


Date:     17.03.2017

Author: Julian Stalter


Max Liebermann:  Simson und Delila, 1902, Oil on Canvas


From a men’s perspective, women sometimes can seem dangerous.  Eyeing the viewer with their fatal look, knowing that just moments before, they sealed the fate of one poor man. Be it Salome, with John the Baptists head in a basket, or Delila, who cut off Samson's hair and therefore deprived him of his strength.


While today one might find the fear of "femme fatales" that male painters of the "fin de siècle“ expressed amusing, it is nonetheless interesting how the perception of gender roles evolved over the 100 years from ca. 1850 to 1950. The exhibition "Geschlechterkampf," roughly translated to "battle of the sexes" at Frankfurt's Staedel Museum, explores the relation and roles of gender in art during this period and how it influenced the painters in their artworks.


While beginning with the fears of the Symbolists and Realists with the likes of "Franz von Stuck" or "Max Liebermann," it also becomes a pleasant surprise to see how at the end of the first world war, women take matters into their hands.



Jeanne Mammen: Sie repräsentiert, ca. 1928, watercolour and pencil


For example the painter Jeanne Mammen. Born into a liberal and aristocratic merchants family in Berlin, she was allowed to discover Berlin's transvestite and gay scene on her own. The watercolour painting "Sie repräsentiert" (She represents) puts the confident „new“ and independent women in focus. With cigarette and cylinder, former attributes of the a man, she presents herself as independent and strong.


The exhibition continues to explore many different topics and artistic styles. It is not only limited to paintings; movies and sculptures are represented as well.


And as the show began with predominantly male painters, it ends with strong women which might be an coincidence, but from my point of view, the curators thought the arrangement well through.

For Example, Meret Oppenheim, who parallels women shoes with stuffed turkey, or Frida Kahlo's self-portraits as a wounded deer, both of them recognized the drawbacks that women still have to endure, but present art as a way to change something. So I can highly recommend visiting the exhibition, which consists of paintings of Max Liebermann, Gustav Klimt, Edvard Munch or Franz von Stuck and is on display at the Staedel Museum until 17th March.