Gustav-Adolf Mossa, Elle, 1905.
“Hieratic and demonic, her body of pure black onyx attracts and reflects the glow of candlelight. Her firm, round breasts thrust forward, gleaming above the shadowed abdomen: the narrow and flat abdomen which swells out at the place where the sexual organs should be, in the form of a tiny death’s-head.”
Jean Lorrain on a statue of Astarté, Monsieur de Phocas, 1901.
The breed of misogyny that marks Decadent works cannot be revised away. It can’t even be seen as an incidental or passive reflection of the social mores of a more overtly sexist culture. It’s fundamental. The femme fatale is one of the central themes of the Decadence, the feminine presented as an unfathomable force, seductive, capricious and destructive, driving men to madness and death for no reason other than to satisfy her lust for cruelty. There are innumerable examples of this trope – Stuck’s serpent-hugged Eve of The Sin, Delville’s Idol of Perversity, Moreau’s and Wilde’s Salome, Machen’s deadly Helen Vaughn of The Great God Pan, Mirbeau’s sadistic Clara of The Torture Garden, Pierre Louÿs’s Chrysis of Aphrodite, Huysmans’s Mme. Chantelouve of Là-Bas, de Gourmont’s jaded adulteresses. Barbey d’Aurevilly went so far as to write an entire volume dedicated to wicked women, Les Diaboliques. Rachilde, the only female Decadent writer, was no less committed to the femme fatale, building La Marquise de Sade around Mary Barbe, a woman who delights in causing suffering recreationally. Professional misogynist Gustav-Adolf Mossa’s Elle is a kind of ludicrous summation of the fearful feminine that haunted the Decadent imagination. The painting is incredibly tawdry, with all the corpses, skull adornments, ravens and huge breasts making it look more like the cover of an issue of Heavy Metal than a 1905 work of ‘fine art.’ But perhaps this is an appropriate way to depict such a lurid and naïve fantasy.
I contend that in many ways the male Decadent artists and writers were projecting their own uneasy ideals onto their wicked women. Their male characters are rarely active, or even really present. They are feeble, impuissant neurasthenics with weak constitutions who fester and dream. Review the only male characters represented in the Decadent pictures I’ve covered thus far – a sallow Herod, a withered St. Anthony, some amusingly effete dandies. They are rather interchangeable observers, while the feminine is the subject. It is the willful, disdainful, capricious, fabulously wealthy and refined ‘Salome type’ who remorselessly delights in sin and values aesthetic pleasure and piquant sensation over human life that theoretically represents a Decadent ideal. It is she who was aroused by the bloodsport in the Colosseum, who smells of the hothouse mixed with the charnel-house, she who embodies the lost splendor of the brutal and opulent old world, of Byzantium and Babylon, that so exceeded our dull, frail and ailing civilization in both beauty and cruelty. The male Decadent was titillated by such stuff, but those are difficult dreams to honestly endorse, and in order to mediate his guilty-schoolboy discomfort at treading in such terrifying territory, he ambivalently invoked the age-old motif of the femme fatale.