The first decade of the twentieth century had been highly successful for Franz von Stuck, with paintings such as Salome (1906), and his ennoblement in the Order of Merit of the Bavarian Crown.
Over the next few years, using his now loose and high-chroma style, von Stuck revisited several of the themes which he had been developing since his early works.
The Dance (c 1910) progresses from the two women he had painted earlier, to a human chain, rich in its variety of dress, including a pale white nude, and ethnicity. The classical pillar in repoussoir at the right suggests a formal setting, perhaps, but the dancers are definitely partying, with two other small groups of people apparently looking into the distance. Above them is a fair-weather sky, and a few birds soaring in the thermals.
Although it is suspected that von Stuck painted The Dance using a combination of oils and tempera, Circle Dancing (1910) has been painted entirely in tempera. Half a dozen young women, wearing evening dresses, are linked by their hands into a ring, and are dancing round in apparent joy. The repoussoir is now formed by young birch trees, and a rolling country landscape is in the distance.
The clouds are here more organised, heaped into towering cumulus, and there’s the suggestion of a shower some miles away. Slightly fewer birds are soaring above.
Fauns, some of von Stuck’s earliest mythical creatures, returned in some brilliantly humorous paintings. In Dissonance (1910), a young faun is struggling to make musical sounds from the reed pipes he holds so intently. The resulting noise is making the older faun next to him suffer badly.
The Old Faun (c 1910-13) reverses the roles: here a much older faun is playing his reed pipes, eliciting admiration from two younger fauns who stand in their amazement at his musical skill.
Von Stuck had not abandoned the femme fatale, but was now exploring different manifestations, including that of Bathsheba (1912).
The story of Bathsheba, which comes from the Old Testament (second) book of Samuel, had long been a favourite of artists, and has inspired some of Rembrandt’s finest works, for example. It is unusual in combining the opportunity to paint a female nude (or partially nude) with intense psychological drama.
When King David was walking on the roof of his palace, he saw the wife of Uriah, then one of his generals, bathing, and lusted after her. David then seduced Bathsheba, and made her pregnant. In a bid to conceal his adultery, he recalled her husband, in the hope that he would sleep with Bathsheba and enable her pregnancy to be ascribed to him. That failed when he did not go to his own bed. David therefore despatched Uriah to the front line, in the hope that he would be killed, which he was. With Bathsheba now widowed, David was able to marry her.
Rembrandt’s famous Bathsheba at Her Bath (1654) is a brilliant depiction of the inner conflict into which David’s invitation to seduction must have placed her. More popular depictions of her taking her bath, with David in the role of peeping Tom, generally assume her innocence, at least until David’s successful seduction. She was no femme fatale, but victim of a king’s lust.
Von Stuck tells us that it took two to tango: King David the voyeur is shown in silhouette on his palace roof, holding a trident. But Bathsheba looks and smiles at us knowingly as she emerges from her luxuriant pool: she performed for the spectator behind her. Von Stuck’s departure from the Biblical story is here as radical as Moreau’s re-writing of the story of Salome.
It was only appropriate that von Stuck should revisit the other Old Testament story of a bathing beauty and voyeurs, that of Susanna and the Elders, also labelled Susanna I (c 1913) to distinguish it from his other works. Here Susanna’s face is turned away from the viewer, as she looks at the two elders who are watching her. Without her facial expression to tell us of her anguish and embarrassment, this too becomes ambiguous.
This further version, Susanna and the Two Elders also from 1913, seems to follow the traditional account more faithfully, but uses a joke to make the elders look even more ridiculous: the small stream of water emerging from the orifice set in the wall of the pool could be misinterpreted as the urine of the elder dressed in red.
Although only a small sample of von Stuck’s paintings from this period, I am fascinated by the lack of military, nationalist, or jingoist influence in them. This contrasts with his contemporaries such as Lovis Corinth.
For von Stuck, there was now only one thing which he lacked: a studio by his villa. In 1913, construction on one started, and it was completed the following year. It had a separate floor for his sculpture. But in 1914, the First World War broke out, and the whole world changed.