The monographic exhibit of works by Franz von Stuck at the Frye Museum showing through February 2 is a stunning accomplishment and well timed. 2013 marked the 150th birthday of the painter and the 120th anniversary of his American debut at the Columbian Exhibition, where he received a gold medal and the attention of Charles and Emma Frye, whose collection served as the basis for the Frye museum’s founding. The year before, Stuck had co-founded the Munich Secession, preceding the Berlin Secession by a few months. There is much to be said about context and content of Stuck’s art, but it is best to begin with what these Secession movements were, as their impact is felt to this day.
In Stuck’s age, the primary institutions judging and presenting art were the academies of art, and their favoring of specific classical modes and themes, landscapes and techniques left many artists excluded and disgruntled. In France, a well known exemplar of the academic style was William-Adolphe Bouguereau, whose idealized mythic and pastoral subjects are indeed magnificent. (His “Young Shepherdess” is on display in the back gallery of the Frye.) But the works of Bouguereau and other ostensibly Humanist painters cannot be called the nonpareil of art, and these academies became downright retrograde when their prevailing tastes ignored scientific, philosophical and social developments that many artists felt compelled to explore and treat in their work.
The first Secession movement was formed in 1890 in France. Stuck and company in Munich were the second in Europe and the first in the German-speaking countries, followed by the Berlin Secession and later the Vienna Secession, whose most famous member is Gustav Klimt. Each Secession had a regional character, and the Munich Secession has been given special attention at the Frye in recent years, with several monographic exhibits of its essential members. Albert von Keller and Gabriel von Max each received their first solo exhibitions in America in 2010 and 2011 respectively at the Frye, and this exhibit of Stuck (also a first) completes the trifecta with several monumental works that have never been exhibited stateside at all, including his 1890 masterpiece “Lucifer.”
There is really no better place for these debut shows to occur stateside than the Frye and no better person to curate them than Frye’s director Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker. The Fryes did not eschew academic art, but they were also avid collectors of works by artists who were considered fringe or “alternative” in their own time, including Stuck. As the Frye has become a hub for classic exhibits and new works by regional artists, the Fryes’ legacy and their embrace of all forms of art—the picturesque and the morbid, the classic and the avant-garde—is alive and well. Prior to her appointment at the Frye, Birnie Danzker was director at the Villa Stuck, the house of Franz von Stuck, which was designed from the floor up to be a total work of art and is now a museum of his work. Images from the Villa are on display in the Frye and several pieces are on loan from it, particularly the earlier works.
The preceding exhibits of Keller and Max’s work revealed similarities and profound differences in the work of the Munich Secessionists. Keller, Max and Stuck each looked at liminal forms and states, but each had peculiar inspirations. In 1895, Wilhelm Röntgen published his discovery of X-rays in an Austrian paper. He was working in northern Bavaria at the time and moved to teach in Munich in 1900. This scientific revelation, the transparency of the body inspired Keller, and his work balances the permeability of flesh with a materialization of spirit. His liminal state is between the numinous and the physical, explored in scenes of séances, Biblical resurrections, mediums and landscapes crackling with a vivid yellow aura that he associated with the spiritual realm. Meanwhile, Gabriel von Max explored the infinitely thin membrane between life and death and, by not affirming the existence of an individual spirit, turned that most mortal boundary into one of awareness and oblivion, wakefulness and sleep, a physical and psychological question that was far less concrete. Stuck’s boundary is between man and beast—in some ways the most defiantly modern of the three, as it drew upon Darwinian theories and treated its classical subjects with especial brutality and wariness.
The classical images are numerous and Stuck’s style is virtuosic, and in this he appears less like a Secessionist than others despite being one of the movement’s founders. However, true to his Secessionist ideals, Stuck does not treat these subjects as mere showcases of his talent and human beauty. Familiar forms and tropes from many classical sources are made ambiguous. Even the most seemingly picturesque scene belies something dark and primal that opposed the insouciance of academic art at the time. One salient example is his treatment of female figures in his work.
The Secessionists rejected aspects of academic art, but the male gaze remained a given for most viewers and women remained idealized objects. The disturbed energy of Keller’s work endowed some females with a wild energy, a power beyond erotic allure—which was the sole aspect treated by academic artists like Alma-Tadema and Cabanel, whether placid, passive or playful. In the century that coughed up Coventry Patmore’s patriarchal paean to his ideal, tractable woman “The Angel in the House,” Keller’s work was an important inversion, but ultimately it only rarified the “otherness” of woman, just as easily becoming propaganda for why women should be kept under control. As for the soft morbidity of Max’s sleeping beauties, male heterosexuality in that time already had a whiff of necrophilia about it, exemplified in countless depictions of fallen women prostrate and dead for the sin of seeking liberation. (I cannot say that things have really improved.) Dead or alive, they were still but pliant female bodies under the male gaze. Both artists modified expectations of that gaze, but did not come close to abjuring it.
Stuck, however, invested his female figures with startling control, will and authority, and when the woman took a more traditional, ornamental pose, it was offset by the presence of men reduced to dimwits dueling for her attention. Stuck painted many such paintings, and there is quite a collection on display at the Frye. Each treats the subject differently, and taken together they state that Darwinian doctrines of “survival of the fittest” and sexual competition still rule even the most “civil” societies; men bear arms, and women bear armies.
“The Duel” from 1907 places the desired woman at center, laughing confidently and dressed and colored in such a way that she merges with the pillar behind her, supporting the vaults over head. Around her, two roguish men skulk with daggers drawn and bucklers at the ready. They look like a sort of brigand or rodelero while the woman looks the part of a 19th century Spanish lady. In the light but cramped Romanesque chamber, the men appear out of place—dark, disorderly and primitive. As they prepare to fight to the death and claim victory for themselves, the woman is the pillar of the structure and the axis of the conflict. There is a question here about who is whose trophy; she may go to the victor, but the slain is also hers.
Another “Duel” painted ten years later places the woman in the right foreground, giving a sly smile as two fops fence in a public square. Again, the men are indistinct while the woman is invested with all the character, quietly enjoying the struggle. It is not certain that she will have any interest in the victor. Again, her flesh takes on the cast of the scene itself, grey as the pavers and the plaster walls of the house in the background, but her dress and her hair and her features do not support a structure; they pour from the darkness and the shadows that frame the scene. The most vivid colors in the painting are a pool of blue water and the bright red light in the windows of the house at back, as if the interior was in flames. This balance of hot and cool in opposite corners adds to the surreal tension, giving subconscious cues of fertility and violence amongst the grey of the struggle, the setting and the woman’s ambiguous mien.
In “Fight Over Woman,” flesh tones dominate, and the woman is anything but calm. She looks on with horror as two burly—again, faceless—males are locked in a violent embrace. (Without the title, one might take this whole scene a very different way, wherein the woman’s horror might in fact be that the men are more interested in each other.) This is prehistoric humanity, brute and uncivilized, and no matter the outcome between her two “suitors,” the fate of the woman will not be rosy. Elsewhere, a study of two satyrs bashing their heads in competition leaves the female figures as shadowy insinuations before a stand of trees in the background.
Taken together, these various paintings of conflict show sexual competition (and violence) as central to life, but indicate that over time (from prehistory on) cunning and beauty have triumphed over brutishness. Stuck’s women are not idealized or objectified, but are rather symbolic (sometimes becoming a literal pillar) of civilization. Birnie Danzker’s curation nods to this by opening the exhibit with a portrait of Pallas Athene, goddess of civilization. Fully adorned in a field of gold, looking directly at the viewer with determination, the “spear-bearing” Athena was a vital symbol for Stuck and the Secessionists as the patroness of the arts, courage and cunning, sprung from the head of the chief god, Zeus. Within the larger oeuvre presented, Athena is the alpha and omega of the divine feminine—not an intercessor or passive incubator, but the catalyst of progress and action.
Stuck gives us Athena, muses, and Amazons who demonstrate their individual power, but he also gives us female figures who use an objectifying male gaze to their advantage. The anonymous women of the duels are not the only example; Stuck also uses familiar figures from antiquity in ways that might have scandalized proponents of academic art. Susanna is represented classically as an innocent wrongly accused, tried for adultery and nearly executed, simply because she was too tempting, too beautiful to not gain the attention of two lecherous elders. Stuck’s Susanna, however, is quite aware of her beauty and in modestly concealing herself from the leering men in the background, she fully exposes her beauteous backside to the audience. Susanna does no wrong, but she becomes something of a femme fatale.
Stuck’s far more immodest depictions of Sin and Sensuality have the female form explicitly inviting the viewer to fall. Several versions of “Sin” exist. The earliest versions from 1893 have a smoother, more classical quality to them, a more golden hue. The 1908 version in the Frye’s permanent collection is more diffuse and has a greenish, morbid cast to it. In this, we see the artist’s conscious development of style over 15 years, further and further from academic art he abjured.
The snake draped around the shoulders of woman’s shoulders in “Sin” appears many times in Stuck’s work, and in the etching “Sensuality” it rises from the woman’s loins—a phallic proxy and blunt suggestion of intercourse, Eros and Thanatos. It appears also in “Inferno” among the despairing souls, looking directly at the viewer with its mouth forming a wicked smile. Just as the female potentially becomes the figurehead of civilization in Stuck, the snake is a chthonic, primal force. Though classically a symbol of evil, the snake in Stuck rather suggests a chaotic state from which we arise through art and the Darwinian evolution that so fascinated the artist. And yet Stuck saw a need for balance between the ideal and instinct, well-knowing the darker aspects of the latter could not be suppressed indefinitely.
Men and Beasts
The men in Stuck’s work were not mere pawns and dimwitted brutes. If the feminine form is the inspiration and the catalyst, the anima, then the male form is still the active energy itself. In his portrait of Samson, the divine strongman is ripping the jaw from a lion and both figures are painted with the same stony, limited palette, a tangle of limbs with muscles in high relief and bones cracking. It’s a Biblical image, but also Darwinian. In “Fantastic Hunt,” two centaurine creatures (one mortally wounding the other) race across a long, horizontal canvas. This lateral composition suggests speed and action, but also recalls cave paintings and—to the modern eye—feels cinematic.
Stuck used a long canvas to different effect in a study he did for his “Pieta.” This study and the finished “Pieta” are displayed on the same wall, opposite “Fantastic Hunt” and “Samson.” In the study, the long canvas boxes in the dead Christ (actually Stuck himself) like a sepulcher, but while the composition suggests inertia, the arms and body are clenched, showing strength even in death. The Christ in “Pieta” is slightly softer than in the study, but the perpendicularity of the mourning Mary with her face buried in her hands reinforces a balance between two gendered visions of the divine, binding their strength and their loss. In her grief, her halo is so subtle it seems as if it could pop at any moment. Elsewhere, in Stuck’s “Golgotha,” the mourners and crucified figures are dark and crude, blending into a landscape dead beneath an eclipse. The thieves that flank Christ are not fully visible in foreground and background but hang above the earth, whereas Christ is lowered with feet on the ground, slumped before the shrouded onlookers. Stuck readily makes the divine accessible to terrestrial humans, at times investing it with great strength and at other times showing its frailty, as an aspect of humanity itself, not beyond it or nature.
As such, civilization is itself still bound to the natural world as a careful and willful balance of forces. In academic art, the harmony of these various forces and the alleged harmony of social tiers and structures of the time was a foregone conclusion. When Stuck shows balance, it is tense and fragile. Just as often, he puts opposing forces in isolation to reveal their frightening potency. The Dionysian (the chthonic, the wild, the instinctive and indulgent) and the Apollonian (the heavenly, the restrained, the ideal and austere) were two categories that Stuck studied, isolated and merged time and again, including in his own Villa, which he designed as a total art work where these forces would be balanced, a temple to the full spectrum of human existence. Unlike the chaotic Wunderkammer of previous centuries—which arranged vast assortments of art and natural materials into microcosms of the world—or the burgeoning galleries and museums of his century—which grew from the Wunderkammer concept to show the supremacy and reach of an empire by collecting objects (trophies, really) from occupied territories—Stuck’s Villa was an expression of individual mastery of opposing elements and forces within all humanity. As such, it included altars to both the dark and light aspects, acknowledging if not appeasing both.
Even when Stuck places some epitome in isolation, it is not purely Apollonian or Dionysian. “Pallas Athena” and “Orpheus” are both inviolate forms in fields of gold, but as ideal as the former may be, she is still weighed down by armor and trappings of authority. Orpheus, meanwhile, is a gorgeous nude strumming pensively on his lyre, surrounded by an odd, Mediterranean menagerie—a mouse, a frog, two lions, a flamingo, a crocodile, and some small mammal, perhaps a hyrax—distinctly attaching him to the land. It is worth nothing that Orpheus himself was psychopompic and his cult blended the Olympic and Chthonic, as he himself was torn to pieces by the Dionysian Maenads.
Stuck sometimes more literally blended his figures into the landscape. His “Sisyphus” is painted such that his skin stands out as lighter and bluer than the surrounding underworld, but the coiled musculature of his body is as one with the boulders and rocks. Stuck consistently does not alter the value of his pigments much at times, such that the colors and figures blend obscurely and it is the hue not the light that determines the boundary between foreground and background, flesh and stone. In “Evening Star,” a kissing couple is almost completely absorbed by the background. A brass element in the sky (the star) protrudes from the canvas, drawing the eye away from them. Humanity in its toil and its tender affections is forever bound to the material world, as if an emanation of it, but touched by something one might call divine.
The morning star makes an even more pronounced appearance elsewhere in the galleries. Indeed, the star of the show is Stuck’s masterwork, “Lucifer.” As with many of his portraits, the subject gazes out toward the viewer—but off center and with pale, enraged eyes, the fallen angel is looking through the audience, not at them. Plotting his revenge and cupping his broken wings, this greatest symbol of inversion—once divine, now demonic, once the favorite, now the enemy—sees through the material aspects to the very essence of humanity and how it can be exploited to subvert divine order. Unlike Stuck’s other composite beasts whose hooves are planted firmly on earth, Lucifer has wings that for flight and ascendance, but now form only a dark shell, a reminder of his fall, crumpled by a thin crescent of light descending from above.
We live still in an age of superstition and myth run amok, and so regardless of one’s personal creed, these images have not lost any potency. In fact, segregation between forces perceived as binary seems only to have increased in the last century. Art and science, picturesque and grotesque, sacred and profane have been isolated and sometimes made into caricatures of themselves without the balancing benefit of their complement. The total art work that Stuck sought to create in his lifetime is an important touchstone for those who have lost sight of this balance. And yet to contemporary eyes, Stuck’s work might look benign, not at all challenging because it is not nearly as gruesome as images to which we are already so accustomed. His technique and skill may awe, but the content may be overlooked. I hope not.
In evaluating this, one begins to consider that the gruesomeness of our time is not merely an attempt to conjure primal shocks and scares in an increasingly numb audience. The simplicity of horror and the grotesque is ever the marriage of the sacred and the profane, what is known with what is unknowable. To acknowledge the thin membrane between the two is to acknowledge our own limitations, our frailty and vulnerability. When it is done poorly, physical survival is all that is at stake—individual, egoistic, Darwinian. When it is done well, it is our spirit, the spirit of an age and a culture and our species over time, that is evaluated and at stake—Humanistic.
The Secessionist movements were not an act of youthful arrogance but of humility, stating that established structures in which we might be comfortable were (and are) flawed, and we must address these flaws or else face even greater chaos and destruction when they inevitably crumble. Indeed, political shifts proved that collapse was inevitable (is always inevitable), but we still live in gratitude—a grey space, a horror—that Secessionists like Stuck recognized and gave a beauty of their own.
Franz von Stuck is on display through February 2 at The Frye.