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The art that saw women as perverse

Carmen Thyssen, next to the painting 'La gitana' by Manuel Benedito.
Carmen Thyssen, next to the painting 'La gitana' by Manuel Benedito. / Salvador Salas
  • The Thyssen Museum is exhibiting the evolution of female identity in modern creation, from the 19th century 'femme fatale' to the new woman of the 20th

The word 'perverse' is generally understood to mean having a deliberate and obstinate desire to behave badly, to deviate from what is good. However, less common is a surprising definition which changes that around: perverse can also be applied to someone characterised by determination or willfulness.

In the mid-19th century, art tended towards the first definition, portraying the cursed beauty of the woman who leads to the destruction of the man. But by the 20th century there had been a rebellion and women were being portrayed as strong, seductive and independent. Perversity, the new exhibition at the Carmen Thyssen Museum which is sponsored by the Unicaja Foundation, looks at this evolution in female identity: from 'femme fatale' to the new woman.

"I find it very interesting and relevant at the present time, when women are often in the news. This exhibition will have an effect," said Baroness Carmen Thyssen, president of the Palacio Villalón Foundation at the launch of the exhibition.

The strong red colour of the walls is a warning that this is an "intense" exhbition. The first picture is a woman in an attitude of waiting, sensual, with a see-through blouse and, of course, she is a red-head, the colour of danger. In 1880 Georges Clairin turned to the archetypes of provocative women to portray one who was in reality a transgression, the actress Sarah Bernhardt, actress and the first female entrepreneur in the world of theatre. The tour of the exhibition ends with a very different pose: in the 20th century, Delhy Tejero painted his friend in trousers, looking powerful, decided and brave.

Perversity is a collection of almost 70 visions of woman through paintings, drawings, prints and sculptures by artists such as Klimt, Modigliani, Van Dongen, Man Ray, Picasso, Dalí, Gargallo, Zuloaga and Romero de Torres, among others. Institutions and collections from France, Switzerland, Germany and Spain have loaned their works for this exhibition.

As the curator and artistic director of the museum, Lourdes Moreno, explained, these are a faithful reflection of society of the time. The way art portrayed women in the 19th century "showed a powerful and negative human sentiment: fear".

The alarm caused in society by the incorporation of women into work in the industrial revolution and their demands regarding employment generated this reaction, which stemmed from literary, mythological and biblical tradition. Anglada-Camarasa paints a Salomé without a face, only interested in her shape; Franz Von Stuck winds a serpent around a redheaded Eve who holds her breast as if it were the forbidden apple; and Rogelio de Egusquiza echoes a misogynistic philosophical trend in 'Kundry' (the cause of perdition in Wagner's 'Parsifal'), the tallest picture ever to have been displayed at the Thyssen Museum, at 2.4 metres.

For many, like Picasso and Penagos, the myth of Carmen, the Spanish 'femme fatale' was an inspiration, whle others preferred the native tradition of the 'maja'. Zuloaga paints her in 'Desnudo del clavel', and Kees van Dongen reviews her in 'El chal español', a provocative work where he places the woman's naked pubis at the eye level of the spectator. The picture was expelled from the Exhibition in Paris in the autumn of 1913. Later, Van Dongen again showed signs of his disruptive character in 'Tango', where a naked woman dances with a man in a jacket with angel wings. Look out, though: he is wearing high-heeled shoes.

The first part of the exhibition is titled 'Damned beauty', and the second is graph of the first part of the exhibition. It is followed by 'Queens of the abyss', encompassing the women of the night who survived during a time of exodus to the cities by offering their bodies in the suburbs and the 'maison close' (French brothels).