The Munich Secession, in 1892, was a watershed in von Stuck’s life and his art. Together with Lovis Corinth and almost a hundred other artists, von Stuck resigned from the official Artists’ Association, which was opposed to Impressionism, Expressionism, and Symbolism. They established their own association, and held their first exhibition the following year in Berlin.
The Munich Secession was the first in a series of art movements which swept the German-speaking countries at the end of the nineteenth century. It was followed in 1897 by the Vienna Secession, in which Gustav Klimt was a major force, and in 1898 by the Berlin Secession, which included Lovis Corinth (again) and his wife Charlotte, Ferdinand Hodler, Walter Leistikow, Max Liebermann, Edvard Munch, Emil Nolde, and Max Slevogt. By the start of the new century, painting and the other fine arts in central Europe had undergone revolutionary change.
This was also the year in which von Stuck made his first sculpture. Although even less well-known for his plastic art, he was also an architect and interior designer.
In 1893, von Stuck’s paintings became dominated by images of a dark and sensual femme fatale, based largely on the figure of Eve. The roots of this go back at least a few years, and are manifest in this etching of Sensuality from about 1889. The serpent has become an erotic object, its long body insinuating itself up between Eve’s legs, embracing her shoulders, and its head rests next to her face. I suspect that Sigmund Freud had a field day analysing this print.
His most famous development of the image of Eve as femme fatale is this more restrained painting of Sin from 1893, now in the Neue Pinakothek in Munich. This won him a gold medal at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago that year. Eve now gives us a knowing look, much – but not too much – of her naked body peering out from the dark. The serpent’s coils are less obvious, but there’s no mistaking its head perched on her right shoulder.
There are other more overt versions elsewhere, including Sin from about the same time, now in a private collection. This appears to be a reversed image of von Stuck’s Sensuality, with the serpent’s body passing between Eve’s legs and its head on her shoulder, the tongue flickering out in menace.
These femmes fatales continued to appear in later paintings too. The Kiss of the Sphinx (1895) may well have been influenced by Gustave Moreau’s paintings of the sphinx, not just in his highly successful Oedipus and the Sphinx of 1864, but more particularly his later Triumphant Sphinx of 1886.
These works show the Greek sphinx, a chimera of a woman’s head and chest with a body based on that of a lion, which effectively put the city of Thebes under siege. It sat outside and refused to let anyone pass unless they answered its riddle correctly. The succession of those who failed in that task were killed by strangulation, their corpses littering the scene. It was not until Oedipus arrived and solved the riddle that its siege was ended – and his fate was hardly a reward, as he entered the city to fall in love with Queen Jocasta, who was actually his mother.
Von Stuck’s depiction of this popular story was probably influential on Fernand Khnopff‘s even more extraordinary painting of the Sphinx in the following year, 1896.
In 1895, von Stuck accepted the position of professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich, where he had studied. He also started work on the design of his house, Villa Stuck, in Munich, which enabled him to exercise his wide range of skills, in its architecture, interior design and decoration, and to decorate the house with his own sculpture and paintings. His furniture designs were recognised in the award of a gold medal at the World’s Fair in Paris, in 1900.
Von Stuck’s femmes were not just fatales, though. His remarkable Dancers (1896) is one of his earlier paintings exploring images of dancing women. This seems to have been inspired by some of the more flamboyant dresses of the day, and as an experiment in the portrayal of motion, in turn influenced by photography. Neither is it great distance from this painting to those of the twentieth century which superimposed multiple images to achieve the effect of movement, such as Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 (1912).
In 1897, von Stuck married an American widow who was well-known in Munich arts circles, Mary Lindpaintner (née Hoose, 1865-1929), who was already the guardian of von Stuck’s first daughter. He painted her portrait as Pallas Athena in 1898.
Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, craft, and war, was a flattering choice for his wife. She is dressed in the armour, complete with its distinctive helmet, which was characteristic of the goddess, and her breastplate bears the image of the head of a Gorgon, making it a form of Aegis. She also holds the shaft of what must be a long spear in her left hand. I’m less clear as to why von Stuck specified that his wife should be qualified with the epithet Pallas, except perhaps by familiar association.
Von Stuck’s matching Self-Portrait of the following year appears in an Art Nouveau frame designed by the artist, as did many of his paintings.
Wild Hunt (1899) is a very busy narrative painting which appears to have been influenced by Lovis Corinth, and is rich in figures, expressions, and action. In the foreground is a Gorgon, perhaps Medusa who was later beheaded by Perseus, with her scalpful of snakes. Behind is a bearded man riding a white charger. Further into the background are others on horseback, including a nude woman who is screaming with her mouth wide open.
Another nude woman appears immediately behind the red rider, although she looks less substantial and more ghostly. In the background are pale skulls.
This appears to be a mixture of classical Greek, Nordic and Germanic mythologies – a wild hunt indeed.