If you haven’t seen “The Eternal Feminine” exhibition by Gustave Moreau at NGV yet, hop to it, because it closes this weekend.
The exhibition only displays a fraction of Moreau’s work, focusing on his interpretation of the female: “strong and often dangerous” femme fatales. I was particularly intrigued by the powerful, yet controversial women he chose to paint, like Salome, the daughter of the Greek/Jewish Herodias, his response to the Unicorn tapestries, and women of the Bible.
Here are some choice excerpts from the exhibition:
On Femme Fatales.
“The term ‘femme fatale’… emerged in the middle of the nineteenth century, when patriarchal attitudes to women began to shift as a direct outcome of the growth of the middle class. Greater prosperity, brought about by the opening up of trade and the adoption of new technologies, also saw women beginning to advocate for access to high education, married women’s property rights, equal status in sexual mores and, ultimately, the vote. In France, where the Code Napoleon had defined the status of women as being the property of man, the ‘new woman’ challenged the traditional image of woman as mother and homemaker, virtuous, sexually repressed and above all else subordinate to her husband.
“The femme fatale, as an extreme contrast, was characterized as worldly, alluring and independent, with a predatory nature that was ultimately destructive to any man who fell victim to her seductive powers. Unlike the passive, Romantic heroine who existed in an aesthetic realm of erotic lassitude, she propelled a negative energy of malevolence and sadomasochism.”
On The Lady & the Unicorn.
“The cryptic, religious symbolism of the unicorn exemplifies in equal measure the essence of the medieval period and the occult spiritualism of late nineteenth century French culture. In medieval times the unicorn was associated with notions of chastity, pure love and the taming of animal passions. The legendary unicorn was reputed to be so wild that it could only be tamed by the purest of virgins, to whom it would come voluntarily for protection and comfort. He [Moreau] described his painting, ‘somewhat cryptically, as an “enchanted isle with a gathering of women, providing the most precious pretext for all the plastic motifs”’.”
On The Bible.
“Inevitably, Moreau’s choice of Biblical women as subjects was directed not toward the ideal and virtuous… But to women whose virtue had been compromised as a result of their possession of a physical beauty that attracted the attention of men, with dire consequences. Though not as dangerous as their alter egos, the femmes fatales—with whom engagement or congress was invariably fatal for the male—these women also shared a compelling attractiveness to the opposite sex.”
I also loved Moreau’s “Ulysses & the Sirens” works, and the room dedicated solely to Salome was worth the $15 cover charge alone.