The Woman Question
Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka
14. March – 30. June 2017
24 West 57th Street, New York NY 10019


Gustav Klimt Moving Water 1898. Oil on canvas. Signed, lower right.
21″ x 26 1/8″ (53.3 x 66.4 cm). Weidinger 128. Private collection.


At the turn of the twentieth century, “the woman question” was widely debated in Europe and the United States. Though discussions of woman’s intrinsic nature recur throughout Western intellectual history, the industrial revolution had given the issue exceptional urgency. The decline of the agrarian economy forced many poor women into low-paying menial jobs or prostitution. A bourgeois woman expected to receive material support from her husband, but if she failed to marry, was widowed or divorced, she had no meaningful professional options. Demands for equal pay, expanded educational opportunities, property and voting rights fueled the fin-de-siècle women’s movement.

This challenge to the patriarchy provoked a particularly volatile reaction in Austria-Hungary. The Viennese capital had experienced enormous growth in the second half of the nineteenth century, attracting immigrants from across the vast multinational Empire. Ethnic tensions, housing shortages, poverty and income inequality rose dramatically and could not adequately be remedied by the moribund Habsburg court or its ossified bureaucracy. As the Empire began to fragment, gender became an overarching preoccupation that subsumed subordinate conflicts involving national identity, socioeconomic class and political ideology. From scientific thinkers such as Sigmund Freud and Richard Krafft-Ebing to self-proclaimed “experts” like Otto Weininger, from the playwright Arthur Schnitzler to the artists Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka, Vienna’s leading intellectuals were seemingly obsessed with sex.

To this day, no one has succeeded in fully teasing apart the intertwined strands of sex (which is biological) and gender (which is socially constructed). Attempts to answer the “woman question” are invariably shaped by the biases of a given time. Men tend to define “femininity” in accordance with their own agenda, and women, likewise influenced by patriarchal surroundings, are often complicit in these efforts. Both Freud and Vienna’s bourgeois feminists thought that female identity is rooted in motherhood. Marianne Hainisch, founder of the League for Extended Women’s Education and the Federation of Austrian Women’s Associations, declared that women are superior to men owing to an innate propensity for “devotion, self-sacrifice and humility.” Hainisch’s acolyte, the progressive educator Eugenie Schwarzwald, wanted to lead humanity back to “the primal mother.” Freud categorically insisted that women devote themselves to raising children. Female intellectual or professional ambition, he averred, was symptomatic of unhealthy penis envy.

Science has frequently been used to muster ostensibly objective evidence in support of subjective gender stereotypes. Charles Darwin believed women are inferior to men, and misogynistic writers such as Weininger (whose 1903 tract Sex and Character was a bestseller) happily expanded on this notion. Evolution, it was said, gave women smaller bones and brains than men, making them inherently weaker and stupider. Just as hermaphroditic life forms gradually evolved into creatures with two distinct genders, theorists suggested that the human sexes had become more sharply differentiated over time. Gender parity came to be associated with the threat of devolution or degeneration, and human progress with male dominance.


Gustav Klimt Embracing Couple 1913. 
Pen and ink on simile Japan paper. Estate stamp, verso. 22 1/4″ x 14 5/8″ (56.5 x 37.2 cm). Belvedere exhibition, 2015-16, No. 95 (ill. p. 157). Strobl 2444. Private collection.

Under the larger rubric of the fin-de-siècle “woman question,” female sexuality received special scrutiny. For centuries males had been associated with civilization, culture, spirituality and intelligence, and females with primitivism, nature, lust and instinct. Now this dichotomy was given a Darwinian spin: females were not just creatures of nature, they were consumed by their biological imperative. “Woman is devoted totally to sexual matters, that is to say, to the spheres of begetting and reproduction,” Weininger noted disdainfully. More progressive thinkers, opposed to the constraints of bourgeois morality, were delighted by such allegations of rampant nymphomania. Writing about Klimt’s nudes, the critic Hermann Bahr enthused that, “everything about the woman belongs to lust.” The architect Adolf Loos and his cronies, writers Peter Altenberg and Karl Kraus, believed woman’s sole purpose was to inspire man with her sensuous allure. Yet Loos and Kraus shared Altenberg’s opinion that “woman sucks us dry, spiritually.” Even liberal views of female sexuality were often tinged with misogyny.

Countering the image of unfettered female lust projected by Weininger, Freud and Krafft-Ebing maintained that sexual desire is not “normal” in a woman. Less incompatible than they seem, these divergent perspectives reflect a shared fear of female libido, as well as the class-based nature of contemporary sexual mores. Bourgeois girls were indeed instructed to suppress their erotic proclivities, while their brothers were encouraged to “sow their wild oats” with prostitutes, shop-girls, maidservants and the like. Viennese society affirmed the age-old split between the Madonna (exemplified by Freud’s frigid mothers) and the whore (judged “inherently wanton”). Klimt, Schiele and Kokoschka adhered in differing ways to this double standard, which influenced both their relationships with and their depictions of the opposite sex.

Klimt never married, but early in adulthood, he developed an abiding friendship with Emilie Flöge, a talented dress designer some twelve years his junior. It is not clear whether their relationship was sexual in nature. Some speculate that Klimt maintained a platonic distance because he had contracted syphilis. In any event, the artist had numerous liaisons with charwomen and models, whose social standing was scarcely better than that of prostitutes. He seems to have had little sustained contact with his various illegitimate children, and provided scant emotional or financial support to their mothers. Klimt was much in demand as a society portraitist, and it is tempting to imagine that he occasionally slept with the bored bourgeois ladies who were his chief clients. However there is no evidence that such was the case, and it is more likely that the class divide between these genteel ladies and the comparatively unrefined Klimt was unbridgeable. Friederike Maria Beer, who was painted by him in 1916, described the artist as animalistic. “He even smelled like an animal,” she recalled.

The Madonna/whore dichotomy is viscerally fleshed out in Klimt’s art. His portraits, especially the gold ones, explicitly reference Byzantine icons. The women are cloaked from neck to toe in sumptuous abstract garments that give little sense of an underlying physical body. The only reference to sexuality is coded in discreet symbols of ova and sperm, which are sometimes tucked into the folds of the dress. Nor do the sitters reveal much in the way of personality. The contemporary critic Bertha Zuckerkandl remarked approvingly that the artist did away with “any individual characteristics, so that only the typical, a sublime extract of the female type, is captured in pure style.” Weininger phrased similar thoughts more harshly: “In…the absolute female…the ground for the assumption of a soul is absent.”

If Klimt’s society portraits have the decorative sterility of icons, his allegorical nudes and his drawings are awash in sexuality. The female nude, of course, is a venerable subject in Western art, but female sexuality per se is a more vexed matter. Traditional paintings of nudes were created by male artists, to be seen and enjoyed by male viewers. In Freudian terms, however, masculine pleasure in such works was imperiled by castration anxiety, a consequence of the woman’s “missing” penis. The female nude therefore had to be transformed from an active threat into an inert, depersonalized object via a process of visual pruning and containment. Beauty was foremost among the devices artists used to this end. The classical female nude was unblemished, a perfect specimen of nubile flesh and soothing, voluptuous form. Often her pubic area was discreetly masked. Beyond this, by placing the nude in a mythical, historical or Biblical context, the artist could subordinate her eroticism to a higher moral purpose. The nude’s subservience was further affirmed by passivity; typically she reclined. Single-point perspective firmly pinioned her within the picture frame and distanced her from the male observer. Looking was the man’s prerogative. The female nude did not usually respond to the artist’s gaze; if she engaged with the hypothetical viewer, it was in the form of a flirtation rather than a challenge.


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