From the eternal feminine to the new woman, this exhibition surveys more than half a century of images featuring women in a period – from the late 1800s to the mid-1900s – when their representation in art underwent a paradigm shift as a reflection of the social situation of the time. The exclusively male and misogynist viewpoint came up against women’s questioning of their own identity. Women went from being passive, sexualised subjects to champions of emancipation and freedom.
The perverse fin-de-siècle femmes fatales, icons of a destructive sexuality, gave way to modern women whose perversity lay in their opposition to the established order and their demands for a space of their own, which rocked the foundations of a historically patriarchal society in the throes of a transforming revolution.
The starting point was the stereotype of the femme fatale, a creation of the late nineteenth-century Decadent and Symbolist movements, which, through biblical, mythological, historical or literary figures, likened the feminine to an accursed beauty, sin or death. In avant-garde art, these treacherous temptresses took the form of flesh and blood women: artists’ muses and models, famous actresses, eccentric socialites, languishing bourgeois women and Spanish majas. Naked or clothed, in suggestive or impassive poses, these women embody the power of desire. Artists such as Suzanne Valadon broke away from these misogynous views of female sexuality with their unprejudiced approach to the female nude as part of everyday life.
To portray these new earthly idols of perversity artists even descended into the underworld of modern society. Cabarets, cafés and brothels supplied the artists of bohemian Paris with low-cost models – sordid Venuses who became the erotic references of an urban society which witnessed a huge rise in prostitution. Ugliness, the grotesque, the macabre and dramatic observations of this decadent universe coexisted with the eternal fascination with the feminine. In the Belle Époque the uninhibited sexuality of these queens of the underworld and the allure of the femmes fatales merged into an aesthetic that was disseminated by fashion and advertising and consumed by the bourgeoisie and high society – by women who, freed from their traditional role in society, called for new roles and shunned conventions.
This survey of female iconography ends with the creative, transgressive and independent new woman who struggled to have a voice of her own throughout the first half of the twentieth century. Together with muses of the avant-garde, such as Kiki de Montparnasse and Gala Dalí, and icons of the revolution in women’s fashion such as Coco Chanel, this section features women who invaded spaces that were previously out of bounds to them or restricted. Above all, it highlights how women artists viewed the feminine: a perverse transgression of the rules of a game which, as today, is no longer for men only.