The dark, decadent art of Franz von Stuck is ushered into the light for its first American retrospective.
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From between the Grecian columns of a gilded picture frame a woman gazes out, one almond eye half veiled by her dark hair, the other fixed on the viewer. Her skin is bluish green, a shade suggesting unnaturalness, ill health, death, or hallucination. Draped around her shoulders, and constituting her only attire, is a monstrously huge blue-speckled python, its glittering head resting on her right breast and baring its fangs in a threatening grin. Inscribed in bold capitals on the bottom of the frame are the two German words “Die Suende”—The Sin. Is this lady our mother Eve, posing in amicable reconciliation with the serpent who seduced her? Is the sin hers? Or is it yours—the one you have doubtless already committed, or the one she will soon draw you into? Or is it perhaps the artist’s—the sin of painting a picture like this, the sin of painting any picture at all?
Whether or not Franz von Stuck violated the natural order when he painted The Sin in 1893, it immediately won him fame and financial success. Over the next two decades, he painted many versions of this signature image, repeating it each time with slight variations. One of those, executed around 1908, was purchased by the American collectors Charles and Emma Frye and brought to Seattle, where it now resides in the Frye Art Museum, which they founded and endowed. This month, for the 150th anniversary of von Stuck’s birth, the Frye is opening the first monographic exhibition in the U.S. dedicated to him. The Sin will be will be joined by an unprecedented number of works, many loaned by the Museum Villa Stuck, located in the artist’s house in Munich, which he designed himself as part of his lifelong project to make a Gesamtkunstwerk or “total work of art.” Jo-Ann Birnie Danzker, the Frye curator who organized the show (produced in collaboration with the Villa Stuck Museum), hopes that it will lead to a re-evaluation of von Stuck, who she believes is not properly understood or appreciated.
Von Stuck was very well appreciated during his lifetime (1863–1928), however, having enjoyed the benefits of coming to artistic maturity during the decadent decade of the 1890s, when the weird was almost mainstream. Symbolist writers such as Georges Rodenbach, J.-K. Huysmans and Villiers de l’Isle Adam had already made the world safe for depravity with their atmospheric tales of doom and belles dames sans merci, and the visual arts were catching up, with the likes of Fernand Khnopff, Gustave Moreau, Félicien Rops and Odilon Redon painting scenes that merged mysticism, horror and sex in a potent mix leavened by expert brush-handling.
But von Stuck’s ambitions went beyond making blood-curdling works of Symbolist painting—he was the leader of a diverse group of artists who called themselves the Munich Secession, having seceded from the mainstream local salon over its conservative policies (predating the more famous Berlin and Vienna Secessions). Not only was he an artistic impresario, he was also a polymath: He painted, made his own frames (which are an integral part of the composition and often preceded the paintings themselves), did magazine illustrations (most notably for Die Jugend), created posters for advertising (such as the all-seeing eye image featured in the Frye show), designed furniture and did serious architectural work. He was also a busy, respected teacher during most of his career, with a particular emphasis on color theory; among his pupils were such future luminaries as Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee and Josef Albers. In 1906 he was knighted, promoted from plain Franz Stuck to the aristocratic Franz Ritter von Stuck.
That turned out to be the peak of his career arc. After World War I von Stuck’s reputation started to slip, mainly because his ornate, figurative style had come to look old-fashioned to an avant-garde that he himself had helped school. Of course, the fact that he was one of Hitler’s favorite artists—not his fault—didn’t help any, either. Post-World War II, von Stuck’s quest for the grand Gesamtkunstwerk—which he pursued in common with his sometime associate Richard Wagner—seemed more like overweening Teutonic territorialism than a humble desire to democratize art by making it part of everyday life. In any case, Danzker believes that it’s high time von Stuck got a fresh look, and that the United States is a particularly appropriate place for this to happen.
Partly, that’s because of the artist’s personal connection to this country—his wife, Mary Lindpaintner, was an American, the widow of a Munich doctor who adopted von Stuck’s out-of-wedlock daughter. But it’s also very much a matter of art-historical relevance. Von Stuck exhibited work at the 1893 Columbia Exposition in Chicago, the first true World’s Fair, and had several one-man shows at galleries there and in New York. Several of the Munich Secession artists were shown at the Met and at the Art Institute of Chicago. In addition to being favored by American collectors in the early 20th century such as the Fryes, von Stuck attracted the attention of a few key curators including Charles Kurtz of the Albright-Knox and Hugo Reisinger of Harvard. According to Danzker, Kurtz was impressed by the exhibition policies of the Munich Secession, which pioneered the so-called “modern hang”—artworks arranged along a wall in one eye-level line with sufficient space in between to appreciate them—at its inaugural show on
June 15, 1893.
“Because of a lack of research for pretty much a half century, even inside Germany, we’ve missed a lot of information about the impact of the Munich Secession artists,” says Danzker, “so we think of the avant garde as seemingly appearing out of nowhere between around 1905 and 1912. But nothing is out of nowhere, and there is a lineage.” For Danzker, a longtime expert on the movement who previously curated a show on the Munich Secession at the Frye, the task at hand is to help viewers today see von Stuck “through the eyes of his contemporaries,” not only those in the art world but in the larger realm of culture, including literature and philosophy.
As an example of what is interesting today about von Stuck’s painting, Danzker points to The Wild Chase, an astonishing canvas in which a bearded, red-clad mounted hunter bears down on his prey and the viewer alike, crushing a Medusa beneath his horse’s hooves, followed by a nightmare-inducing train of naked, livid bodies, skull-faced undead, and a rearing black horse. Danzker sees in it more than just a thrilling addition to the canon of Gothic horror: “We talk of Expressionism starting out of nowhere, but you look at these incredible works von Stuck was producing, like The Wild Chase. A lot of things are happening in that painting, planes within the picture that are not contiguous. The figures surrounding the central figure are almost like individual paintings. That’s not been recognized.”
Like many of von Stuck’s painting, The Wild Chase takes its subject from mythology—in this case, Nordic pagan legends about an eternally repeated spectral hunt that presaged death for any mortal that happened to catch of glimpse of it going by. Other famous von Stuck canvases depict Greco-Roman mythic figures such as Orpheus and Pallas Athena, these being shown in a much more serene style, often against a neo-Byzantine gold background. Danzker insists that the artist’s penchant for myth by no means marks him as retrograde. “I had interpreted von Stuck’s use of material from Classical sources as a desire for a more perfect world, a world of the past,” she says. “But in fact, I’ve come to understand that this was not really the case.” She connects von Stuck’s project of reanimating mythology with that of Nietzsche, asking, “When is a mythological figure a mythological figure, and when is it a representation of a modern theory about the necessity and presence of the Apollonian and the Dionysian?” Danzker also cites Darwin and Freud as influences on the painter’s often cruel and brutal vision.
Even though a walk through the galleries of this show is bound to be a journey into the depths of one man’s mind, Danzker’s aim in organizing it was for von Stuck to be more firmly situated in his historical context. In considering that context, the fact that the artist was influenced by Nietzsche or Freud or Darwin is ultimately less interesting than the fact that the creator of such bizarre, harrowing images, which seem to surge up ungovernably from psychic depths, was lionized by the establishment of turn-of-the-century Munich, given a knighthood, and entrusted with the artistic education of the young.