It’s true in advertising and it’s true in art—sex sells. Franz von Stuck knew that fact quite intimately. Born February 23, 1863, Stuck caused a sensation with his painting The Sin (above, from 1893), in which the pale skin of the nude woman strikes a stunning contrast with the darkness all around her and partially obscuring her face. Stuck’s Symbolist style emphasized the physicality of the woman as sexual object over her individuality as a person, literally keeping her identity in the shadows. With such dark femme fatales, Stuck examined the shadowy corners of human sexuality through mythology and the Bible, always concentrating on the power of the female form as a symbol of energy, birth, and danger.
In Sensuality (above, from 1894), Stuck emphasizes the fatal in the femme fatale even more. A giant snake coils itself around the deathly pale woman’s body. The snake’s head rises next to that of the woman, paralleling her come hither bedroom eyes with its reptilian stare. Stuck goes all the way back to the story of Adam and Eve in resurrecting the snake as a symbol of female sexuality gone amuck. Even more disturbing is the clarity of the snake’s face versus that of the woman, as if Stuck suggests that the snake’s sneer is the “true” face of the woman. Such works predate, the psychological ideas of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, but just barely. Obviously, those ideas were already in the air, providing fertile material for Stuck to exploit. Jung would argue that Stuck simply was tapping into the images of the collective memory of humanity, but I see him striking a different, more specific vein of the same spirit of the age that inspired the erotic works of Gustav Klimt and other German artists.
With The Kiss of the Sphinx (above, from 1895), Stuck finally consummates the relationship between his pale femme fatale and her quite willing victim, using the myth of the ancient sphinx, specifically the ancient Greek version that devoured its victims. The Kiss of the Sphinx literally threatens to consume the male. Stuck enjoyed great fame and fortune during his time, eventually becoming a successful teacher of artists such as Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, and Josef Albers. Unfortunately for Stuck, years after his death, Adolf Hitler, during his “Degenerate Art” rampage through modern art, held Stuck up as an example of acceptable German painting. Despite that endorsement, Stuck’s art remains a fascinating glimpse into the Symbolist style and an unobscured view of the sexual tension at the heart of that movement.