The concept of femme fatale refers to a woman who is dangerous because of her alluring tendencies. Artists have strived and depicted such tendencies of women in their artworks. The duality of femme fatale and Primitivism presents different meanings based on the work of art.
The essay focuses on the three paintings by Matisse, Gauguin, and Kirchner in order to demonstrate how these pieces of artworks have captured femme fatale as savage and Primitivism styles in the paintings.
What is the femme fatale?
Painters have always depicted women subjects in their artworks. However, the portrayals have different meanings based on time, painters’ intentions, and events of the society among others. For instance, some artists have depicted women as the epitome of purity, motherhood, and elegance.
Female paintings have reflected the feminine qualities of women. The most common women paintings of the past were mainly Venus and Madonna. According to Allen, paintings often reflected women within the domestic sphere and in the state of servitude (Allen 191).
Thus, such fixed forms of the environment or subjection often separated feminine and masculine depictions. Artists did not portray independent women, or they never depicted women in a masculine environment.
For a while, artists held that view as they became creative, but often retained their social attitudes toward women in society (Allen).
However, women experienced significant changes in their lives during the 19th century. These changes strived to show the need for independence and desire to make their decisions and choices. They wanted to escape from the patriarchal society under the influence of men.
During the 1860s, people realized that there were significant changes in Europe as women attempted to escape from maternity as they advocated for new ways of family planning (Allen 194).
Consequently, the desire for independence among women gained the attention of painters. They introduced the movement of femme fatale in the world of arts (Chu 67).
Femme fatale depicted women in the most alluring and dangerous manner with regard to their postures, pose, position, costumes, and the environment. This movement resulted in a ‘backlash’ among women who viewed their fantasies and fears in paintings.
In addition, the paintings depicted attitudes of men towards women. Allen noted that dangerous women had strong senses of fantasies and fascination than women of purity, virtue, and grace. However, as women depicted their sexuality as their major weapon, their purity faded.
As a result, painters and society began to see women as people who could tease and bargain based on the power of their sexuality (Kingsbury 97).
Women who did not possess strong and alluring sexual features could not meet the ideal standards of femme fatale. Women who deviated from the norm received backlashes from the society because they strived for androgynous qualities (this is prominent in Henri Matisse’s Blue Nude, 1907).
In fact, the society became repulsive, scornful, disapproving, and condemned women who deviated from traditions of conventional women (Allen 190). This was a sign of women rebellion against the ideal standards of the 19th century.
Various forms of literary works have captured different manners in which women rebelled against the conventional traditions. Consequently, rebellions of women to express their sexuality and thrust themselves in the male dominated areas have contributed to their depiction as sexual objects.
Thus, artists depicted women as seductive and could ensnare their prey through seductive charms and lead them to dangerous situations. Contrary to femme fatale, there was also the concept of Primitivism.
What is Primitivism?
Painters also captured women through the style of Primitivism, but people feared that it could erode the well-established styles of art. The society regarded Primitivism as a backward style and not westernized. Artists started to crave for new ways of presenting their pieces of artworks.
They looked beyond European borders for fresh inspiration from other cultures. They focused on Pacific Islands, Africa, Asia, and other places where civilization had not reached.
Primitivism also reflected concepts like connection with nature, savage exoticism, uncivilized women, peasants, and the tribal nudity.
The term primitive depicts people with low education, uncivilized, and untamed in manners. The term has a negative connotation as it shows people who lack refinement from civilization.
Rhodes notes that such twists in Primitivism have raised significant points in modern forms of artworks based on specific primitive styles (Rhodes 13).
Some research has shown that the idea of Primitivism emerged as an attempt to remove arts from the complex approach of the civilized world and restore the fundamental ideals and feelings in arts (Rhodes 130).
Painters have captured Primitivism by using abstract concepts, curved, simple, and dark lines in their works. The style is simple and may resemble simple graphics of children’s art. The primitive aspects of children’s art reflect the development and transition of artworks in various stages.
However, arts may represent the whole of concept of primitiveness in a culture rather than a transitory phenomenon (Rhodes 17). The style may lack rules or defined boundaries. This freedom in expression attracted the attention of many artists.
Artists wanted to explore the lives of uncomplicated individuals like peasants and tribal groups. In this context, primitive arts presented such opportunities as artists expected to discover missing qualities in pieces of arts (Rhodes 107).
Rhodes notes that not much research exists in the primitive forms of artworks as they lack precise dates of production. As a result, most writers have linked such artworks to savage and tribal groups with childlike expressions (Rhodes 18).
In this style, the subject of the art is not important, but rather it is the style that artists have shown interest in understanding.
Modern artists and Expressionists have also shown their interests in Primitivism. Artists noted that Primitivism allowed them to release their inner savage and express it in arts. In France and Germany, artists like Picasso and Briicke did not concentrate in Art Nouveau.
Instead, they sought for primitive qualities in African arts. These artists believed that African arts could provide “the intuitive and expressionist creative methods” (Rhodes 107) they sought.
Expressionism portrays emotions and feelings just like Primitivism. Artists can express their inner feelings through Expressionism. Primitivism shows the desire to connect with the nature and the inner savage or uncivilized part of the artist. Therefore, these styles complement each other.
Henri Matisse is a “French artist and a proponent of Fauvism, who derived his insight from North Africa” (Allen 15). Still life and nudity dominated most pieces of Matisse’s artworks.
Matisse used palm trees and ocean in order to evoke a primitive fantasy in his artworks with elements of African crafts.
Matisse used simple forms of arts with bright colors to explore his idea of Fauvism because he viewed the concept as ‘wild’. This helped Matisse to explore the inner primitive as he adopted Primitivism style.
The Blue Nude, 1907 of Matisse reflects the concept of femme fatale. The subject is in a relaxed environment. The subject looks relaxed and comfortable in depicting her competing sexuality and masculine features. For the start, one cannot miss striking masculine features in the subject.
The subject has big feet. The head is glowing with a mixed beauty, which changes between a young boy with short hair and an oriental girl. Matisse screwed the head on a thick and strong neck.
The muscles in the arms, legs, and thighs are clearly masculine, which reflect power and strength that women craved to have. From the zaftig, one can notice the black boulder. The figure has a motherly ass that resembles a rising sun in the morning.
Matisse also uses color to portray the androgynous qualities in the subject. For instance, the dark blue and green color could depict masculine elements in the woman. Matisse has portrayed the subject’s eyes with dark strokes of the brush.
There is no doubt that the woman is in control of her sexuality. The subject has used her huge hips to cover her private parts.
The position of the head shows that the woman does not care about what goes on in her surroundings. The subject depicts freedom in untamed surrounding and looks comfortable.
Matisse depicts Primitivism in the Blue Nude. He achieves Primitivism style through childlike colors in the painting. He carefully applies deep blue shades throughout the painting. The painting gets light from different sources. Matisse does not use shades of colors on the arms and legs.
Instead, he uses pure colors in order to establish a light-filled figure on the canvas in his Fauvism style. He achieves contrast by using pure and changed colors on the subject. With androgynous qualities, one may wonder whether the artist had erotic intentions or not.
Matisse captures this concept by fusing elements of masculine features (hugeness, tallness, and broadness) into features of a woman and manages to portray a dynamic portrait.
Overall, the painting remains colorful and dynamic. The idea of fusing a stark naked woman with androgynous elements achieves perfection that many artists could not.
Paul Gauguin was a post Impressionist artist who wanted to explore new ideas. He always strived to establish such concepts by looking at the source. Consequently, he was in Tahiti to discover new things. This helped in shaping the concept of Primitivism.
He aimed to establish intuitive and expressionist concepts in artworks, which he believed were in African artworks (Rhodes 107).
Gauguin’s Two Tahitian Women of 1899 shows a traditional presentation of women. The artist presents strong bodies that come into the light to face the audience in their full erotic beauty. The women do not express any feeling of nervousness or self-consciousness.
The woman has an impassive face that does not reject or solicit viewers’ gaze. One can observe full repose and strength in the body. This brings in the dangerous allure of women or femme fatale. In fact, the artist brings in fruits to represent a woman’s body offered to viewers.
Further, one can argue that the painting is an act of a male gaze that consumes a woman as a sexual object. Still, viewers may also depict it as positive gesture from the woman who lacks a guilty conscience and enjoys the pleasures of the gaze that consumes her body.
This idea enthralled and inspired Gauguin. The artist aimed to capture the romantic and primitive idea in the island, but he turned it into a sexualized concept. Gauguin applied the idea of the color theory and painting in his work.
Thus, he was able to create a ‘synthetic’ artwork, which could act as a symbol instead of a mere duplication of reality. These women are aware of their beauty and the gaze they attract, but do not shy away from it.
Gauguin depicts smooth and attractive bodies with tanned brown shade. The erect breasts show their tenderness to viewers. The woman has strong arms that reflect masculine features. Her hair is neat and thrown back to show an attractive face against bright and dark shades of colors.
The bright color of fruits in the tray is as just as inviting as the woman. In the context of Primitivism, one can notice the background colors of green and brown shades that depict the sky and elements of sunshine as the source of light.
One can also observe the childlike painting in the background with colorful canvas.
The most recent activity on the Two Tahitian Women was in 2011. Shelley Esaak noted that a woman attacked the painting and claimed as follows (Esaak 1):
“I feel that Gauguin is evil. He has nudity and is bad for the children. He has two women in the painting and it’s very homosexual. I was trying to remove it. I think it should be burned” (Susan Burns’ explanation for attacking the Two Tahitian Women in 2011).
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner was an Expressionist painter from Germany. The artist captures both the concept of femme fatale and Primitivism in the Five Cocottes, 1914. The artist uses the elegance of the dresses of the women to depict femme fatale.
Hairstyles show women of high status with seductive faces. The postures reflect masculine positions while hands on the loins may suggest that the women could be waiting for another person. This painting lacks a male figure to show that women are in control of their situation.
Kirchner captures Primitivism by using dark rigged and rough strokes. The dark black lines depict a sketch of a wheel that shows childlike paintings of modern art (Arnason 21).
In contrasting the three works, they have similar concepts, but have different features. Gauguin’s Two Tahitian Women reflects a simple and the natural world of Tahiti that civilization and urban life has not reached, but he ends with the nudity of the Tahitian women and primitive cultures.
He used rich colors to thrust femme fatale and captures a beautiful face with firm and bare breasts to titillate male viewers than the other two pieces.
Matisse manages to present androgynous qualities in the Blue Nude than other artists. He shows energy and masculinity depicted with childlike strokes on the canvas that reflects a natural environment. The subject is at ease with nature.
The Five Cocottes of Kirchner shows elements of a modern art than other two pieces. The artist applied Primitivism, but it appeared modern. The dresses of the women show sophistication while the wheel could depict an industrialized city.
Painters used Primitivism often than femme fatale because the latter could titillate male viewers. On the contrary, Primitivism reflected unspoiled, innocence, and the natural state of subjects.
Until now, one can witness the reaction of women against femme fatale (Esaak 1). Women believe that such paintings depict them as pure objects of pleasure for sexual gratification.
Allen, Virginia. The Femme Fatale: Erotic Icon. New York: The Whitston Publishing Company, 1983. Print.
Arnason, Harvard. History of Modern Art: Painting Sculpture Architecture Photography, 7th ed. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2013. Print.
Chu, Petra-ten Doesschate. Nineteenth- Century European Art, 2nd ed. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2006. Print.
Esaak, Shelley. Gauguin Sets Longevity Record for Driving Women Mad. 2011. Web.
Kingsbury, Martha. The Femme Fatale and Her Sisters: Woman as Sex Object – Studies in Erotic Art, 1730-1970. United States: Newsweek, Inc., 1972. Print.
Rhodes, Colin. Primitivism and Modern Art. New York: Thames & Hudson, 1994. Print.