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John William Waterhouse (1849-1917), Circe offering the cup to Ulysses, detail, 1891. Oil on canvas, 148 cm × 92 cm © Gallery Oldham.

The femme fatale is a myth, a projection, a construction. She symbolizes a visually coded female stereotype: the sensual, erotic and seductive woman whose allegedly demonic nature reveals itself in her ability to lure and enchant men – often leading to fatal results. It is this likewise dazzling and clichéd image, long dominated by a male and binary gaze, that is in the focus of the exhibition »FEMME FATALE. Gaze – Power – Gender« at the Hamburger Kunsthalle. Beyond exploring a range of artistic approaches to the theme from the early 19th century to the present, the show aims to critically examine the myth of the femme fatale in its genesis and historical transformation.

The »classical« image of the femme fatale feeds above all on biblical and mythological female figures such as Judith, Salome, Medusa or the Sirens, who were widely portrayed as calamitous women in art and literature between 1860 and 1920. Characteristic of the femme fatale figure is the demonization of female sexuality associated with these narratives. Around 1900, the femme fatale image was frequently projected onto real people, mainly actors, dancers or artists such as Sarah Bernhardt, Alma Mahler or Anita Berber. What is striking here is the simultaneity of important achievements of women’s emancipation and the increased appearance of this male-dominated image of women. In the sense of a counter-image that playfully picks up on aspects of the femme fatale figure, the New Woman, an ideal emerging well into the 1920s, also becomes important for the exhibition. A decisive caesura was set in the 1960s by feminist artists concerned with deconstructing the myth of the femme fatale – along with the corresponding viewing habits and pictorial traditions. Current artistic positions, in turn, deal with traces and appropriations of the archetypic image or establish explicit counter-narratives – often with reference to the #MeToo movement, questions of gender identities, female corporeality and sexuality, and by addressing the topic of the male gaze.

To investigate the constellations of gaze, power and gender that are constitutive for the image of the femme fatale and its transformations over time, the exhibition has assembled around 200 exhibits spanning a broad range of media and periods. On display will be paintings by Pre-Raphaelite artists (including Evelyn de Morgan, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John William Waterhouse) alongside Symbolist works (such as Fernand Khnopff, Gustave Moreau, Edvard Munch and Franz von Stuck), works of Impressionism (including Lovis Corinth, Max Liebermann, Édouard Manet, Max Slevogt), of Expressionism and New Objectivity (Dodo, Jeanne Mammen, Gerda Wegener, among others). The featured positions of the early feminist avant-garde (including VALIE EXPORT, Birgit Jürgenssen, Ketty La Rocca, Maria Lassnig, Betty Tompkins) along with current works based on queer and intersectional feminist perspectives (Nan Goldin, Mickalene Thomas, Zandile Tshabalala, among others), build a bridge all the way to the present.

 09 Dec 2022 to10 April 2023

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Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), Helen of Troy, 1863. Oil on mahogany, 32,8 x 27,7 cm, Hamburger Kunsthalle © Hamburger Kunsthalle / bpk. Foto: Elke Walford

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Evelyn De Morgan (1855-1919), Medea, o.D., oil on canvas, 148 x 88cm © Williamson Art Gallery and Museum, Birkenhead (Wirral Museums Service)

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John William Waterhouse (1849-1917), Circe offering the cup to Ulysses, 1891. Oil on canvas, 148 cm × 92 cm © Gallery Oldham.

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Franz von Stuck (1863-1928), Judith und Holofernes, 1926. Oil on canvas , 157 x 83 cm, Staatliches Museum Schwerin © Staatliche Schlösser, Gärten und Kunstsammlungen Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Staatliches Museum Schwerin, Foto: Elke Walford.

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Max Klinger (1857-1920), Die Sirene, 1895. Oil on canvas, 100 x 185 cm, Uffizi ©Gabinetto Fotografico delle Gallerie degli Uffizi.

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Fernand Khnopff (1858-1921), Who Shall Deliver Me (Christina Georgina Rossetti), 1891. Conté chalk and colored pencil on paper, 21,9 x 13 cm © The Hearn Family Trust.

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Edvard Munch (1863-1944), Madonna, 1893-1895. Oil on canvas, 60 x 71 cm, Hamburger Kunsthalle © SHK / Hamburger Kunsthalle / bpk. Photo: Elke Walford.

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Max Liebermann (1847-1935), Samson and Delilah, 1902. Oil on canvas, 151,2 x 212 cm © Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main.

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Jeanne Mammen (1890-1976), Man and Medusa, 1910-1914. Watercolour, pencil and ink drawing, 24,7 x 21 cm, Stiftung Stadtmuseum Berlin © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn. Reproduktion: Dorin Alexandru Ionita, Berlin.

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Nan Goldin, Lola modeling as Marilyn, Boston, 1972. Silver gelatine print, 50,8 x 40,6 cm, Marian Goodman GalleryCourtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery © Nan Goldin

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Maria Lassnig (1919-2014), Woman Power, 1979. Oil on canvas, 82 x 126 cm, ALBERTINA, Wien - The ESSL Collection. Foto: Peter Kainz (Inv. EDLSB4306) © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2022

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Birgit Jürgenssen (1949-2003), Untitled (Olga), 1979. SX 70 Polaroid, 10,5 x 8,7 cm, Galerie Hubert Winter © Birgit Jürgenssen, Estate Birgit Jürgenssen / Bildrecht Vienna, 2022; Courtesy Galerie Hubert Winter. Foto: pixelstorm Estate Birgit Jürgenssen (ph354)

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Betty Tompkins (*1945), Apologia (Artemisia Gentileschi #1), 2018. Acrylic on book page, 25,4 x 40,6 cm, Privatsammlung, Zürich.