The Good, the Bad & the Mother:
Images of Women in Early 20th Century
Austrian & German Art
Good girls faced off against bad girls, introducing The Lady and the Tramp: Images of Women in Austrian and German Art . Displayed on the wall behind the large desk at The Galerie St. Etienne , Egon Schiele’s drawing, Woman with Hat and Veil (1918), joined a possible portrait of his mother and a third ladylike image.
On the opposite wall another Schiele drawing, the euphemistically titled Seated Female Nude, was flanked by other nude images–his own and that of Gustav Klimt. In the vitrine beneath them, Alfred Kubin’s two naked witches brandished brooms and did battle on donkey and oversized pig in Witches’ Sabbath.
Much of Schiele’s art reflects his unabashed obsession with the erotic potential of the female body, the younger the better. In this particular Seated Female Nude, the model’s head recedes into the background while her pubis, partially covered by her left hand with its disappearing middle finger, advances toward the viewer. Shifting his perspective, Schiele could also depict Wally–for a time the great love of his life–with tender respect for her purity.
Creatively curated by the gallery’s co-director Jane Kallir (also the author of the accompanying scholarly essay ), the exhibit physically situated artwork to emphasize the split epitomized in the still-current view of woman as madonna/whore, spotlighted chronic male fear of women’s sexuality and illustrated women’s own conflicts about wielding their considerable power.
Past the desk, on the way to the elongated alcove on the left, the visitor could ponder an Ernst Ludwig Kirchner lithograph in which an elegantly dressed lady, with handless arms that meld into her torso, strolls along an avenue. A man in a tall hat with his back to the viewer enters the scene from the lower right and gazes in her direction. The print is titled Streetwalker.
Beyond the Kirchner, on what Kallir called “the wall of bad sex” (when asked about the rationale behind the exhibit layout), men’s castration anxieties found florid expression in Lovis Corinth’s novel conceptualization of Judith Beheading Holofernes. This is not the intensely serious Judith of Artemisia Gentileschi  or Caravaggio  but a gleefully villainous vamp with exposed breasts who wields a sword too long to fit within the picture frame and sits on the bed right next to her victim. The thrown-back head of the poor guy seems awash in blood and his arms extend helplessly beside him.
The wall progresses (so to speak) from there to Max Klinger’s The Proposition (1884) from his series A Life, a pictorial account of a woman’s descent from jilted lover to performer, then to prostitute and, finally, homeless wretch. Redeemed by Christ, she falls back into depredation, apparently unable to sustain such an elevated spiritual existence.1 In this etching, the nude woman lies stretched out on a bed, one leg extended with its foot pressed up against the face of the overdressed propositioner trying to get at her. A combination of anger and disgust animates her face.
Several tamer pictures later, the viewer encounters a pair of blood baths: images of Lustmord (sex murder), a subject of widespread fascination in Weimar Germany following the end of World War I. “Men’s fear of women was heightened by the feelings of vulnerability and impotence that soldiers had experienced during the war,” Kallir observes in her essay. “The carnage of combat had accustomed men to violence, and both Otto Dix and [George] Grosz vented their post-traumatic rage on female subjects.”2
In his Sex Murder in the Ackerstrasse (1916-17), Grosz used tilted perspective, angular lines, and clutter to accentuate the organized chaos of the scene. A decapitated female body stains the bed where it lies, legs draped over a pillow and a bloodied axe nearby. A large, white, room-dividing screen acts as a backdrop for the corpse. A man’s jacket and cane draped over it indicate the recent disrobing of the murderer who, in the background, worriedly attempts to rid himself of the stains of his heinous act by scrubbing his hands in a small sink.
Grosz leads the viewer to the perpetrator through his canny arrangement of objects on the table at the foot of the bed, directing the eye up the right edge of the lithograph through the furniture leg behind it, to the clutter on the vanity, and onto the tall lamp with its face-like decoration mimicking the man’s wide-eyed expression. The culprit’s hanging suspenders, another indication of his recent undressed state, complete the loop by pointing to blood stains on the screen that connect with the dead woman’s right shoulder. One is left to puzzle out the location of the missing head.
Not to be outdone, Otto Dix  gave the world Sex Murder (1922), one of six etchings in his series Death and Resurrection, which includes such titles as Suicide, Dead Soldier and Funeral. Nothing subtle here. Blood streams from the dead woman’s mouth and from the chasm carved into her abdomen, continues in a line to the separation between her labia, and forms a puddle on the bed between her spreadeagled legs. It spurts from several other wounds sliced into her body.
On the floor in the foreground, a neatly arranged lace-trimmed, short-skirted dress and a brimmed hat, along with a dark-colored bottle, suggest a nonviolent prelude to the murder that followed. Lest there be any doubt about the nature of that earlier interaction, a black, scraggly mutt mounts a white, shaggy purebred who turns a bewildered gaze at the viewer.
In such images, men take revenge on Judith and Salome, women over whom they lost their heads in the past. Male fear of female sexual power necessitates strong defensive maneuvers. Today the burqa keeps women under wraps and in too many places the punishment for adultery is stoning to death, and for being raped, ostracism from one’s family and community.
Opposite the “bad sex” wall, two etchings by Käthe Kollwitz  pictured a very different female role, that of warrior. In Outbreak (1903), part of the series Peasants’ War, a woman reaches skyward, her back to the viewer, as she urges on a crowd of peasants brandishing farm tools as weapons.
In another print, related to Peasants’ War but ultimately not part of it, a woman is cradled from behind between the legs of a crouched man, perhaps her husband. He reaches a long arm down to cover her right hand with his as she grasps the handle of what, on close inspection, looks like a straw broom but could easily be mistaken for an axe or a scythe. His large right fist rests on her left shoulder and her head obscures his features. The furrowed brow on her rugged face along with her protruding lower lip express a determination that the man is either restraining or encouraging. The title, Inspiration, hints at the latter.
Exiting the battle-strewn alcove on the way to a large room in the back where the women gathered as artists and subjects, the visitor encountered two watercolors by Egon Schiele. One of them, the hauntingly beautiful Portrait of Elisabeth Lederer, (1913) contrasts a pose of virginal self containment with a facial expression that mixes come-hither sweetness (mouth) with only-if-you-dare cruelty (black-lined eyes capped with inwardly descending eyebrows).
The mass of black hair and deeply colored facial features barely manage to draw attention away from the figure’s lower torso, where insistent areas of red, blue and aqua connect with a body-dividing black belt. Hands resting in her lap, one in the other at the end of curving lower arms, protect their underlying treasure much as the broach on the wide collar secures the neckline.
In the adjacent watercolor, Seated Pregnant Nude (1910), Schiele presents quite a different view of pregnancy from that of Kollwitz in her etching, Pregnant Woman (1910). Here, a male artist reduces a woman’s reproductive power to a formal play of circles (abdomen and breasts) and squares (arms and thighs), strips her of individuality by omitting her face, and renders her impotent by amputating her hands and cutting off her legs at the knees. Schiele focuses the viewer instead on the mysterious black triangle that occupies the space between her legs.
Kollwitz, on the other hand, portrayed her Pregnant Woman with gravitas. She cloaked her in a heavy black blanket decorated with a pattern reminiscent of a chain-link fence and gave her heavy-lidded eyes and a down-turned mouth to reflect the burden of late-term pregnancy and working-class status. The bright patch of light that is her neck emphasizes the grey of her face against the darkness of the background. Her form fills the modest sized space, bestowing on this pregnant woman a monumentality foreign to Schiele’s conceptualization.
Pregnant Woman was displayed in the far corner of the large back gallery amidst images by other women. To counter the unrelenting desexualized view of women as peasants, workers or mothers, Kallir included several paintings by Marie-Louise Motesiczky  that illustrated women’s romantic relationships with men. Unfortunately, in none of them are women represented in a one-up position.
Nearby, in a departure from the bifurcated exhibit theme, a Kollwitz etching injects sensuality into a portrait of a working-class woman. In Worker Woman with Earring (1910), the artist has modeled in three-quarter view a handsome, black-haired woman with bony features. The subject’s small loop earring and shiny hair, coupled with her regal bearing, confer on her the stature of queen. Despite a weariness implied by her lowered eyelid and frowning mouth, she retains a masculine beauty not yet snuffed out by her circumstances. Neither maternal nor aged, she seems to dare any but the most well-intentioned of men to approach her.
In contrast to the Kollwitz print and more in keeping with the tendency of women artists to rebel against the sexual objectification of women by desexing them, Paula Modersohn-Becker presented for contemplation an old woman in a babushka. In this large charcoal drawing of a Peasant Woman in Profile, Facing Left (1898), the fineness of the technique easily eclipses the personality of the sitter.
More a type than an individual, Modersohn-Becker’s peasant woman displays little emotion other than a slightly upturned mouth. Gazing straight ahead, her open eye barely discernable amid the engulfing grey shadow, she is more personification than person.
Kollwitz’s images of motherhood similarly focus on a female role rather than on individual women. Undoubtedly influenced by her own experience raising two sons and losing one of then to the carnage of World War I, she paid homage to mothers as seed bearers, protectors and nurturers of the next generation.
One of four parenting-focused prints by Kollwitz included in the exhibit, Mother with Boy (1933) expresses well the joy of tending young children. The mother, smiling face in shadow, supports her child as he encircles her neck with his baby arms. While the boy directs his attention to something below, effectively turning his head away from his mother, she beams down contentedly at him, relishing the pleasure of his freely given hug.
Too often life circumstances interfere with a woman’s ability to safeguard her children and they are left to fend for themselves like the girl in Dix’s etching, Sailors in Antwerp (1924). As part of his fifty-piece series Der Krieg (War), the artist here takes the viewer into a darkened room, perhaps a parlor, where each of three men eagerly pulls toward himself a female in a dress.
As the scene reveals itself to the viewer, it becomes clear that while two of the objects of desire respond with welcoming embraces, the third does not. Much shorter than the five others, she stands in high-heeled shoes while her seated suitor attempts to kiss her. Turning her head away and looking up toward the heavens, she grabs his head as if to restrain it.
Dix never flinched in his portrayals of war and in Sailors in Antwerp, he illustrates how societal upheaval leaves children susceptible to predation. Likewise, when women acquiesce to their own subjugation by donning the preferred costumes and customs of their overlords, they abandon their powers of generativity, forsaking their responsibility to protect and nurture the vulnerable who depend on them.
1 Jane Kallir, exhibition essay, 2011, 2.
2 Ibid, 3.
The Lady and the Tramp:
Images of Women in Austrian and German Art
The Galerie St. Etienne 
24 West 57th Street
New York, NY 10019