Wicked women and other dark strangers

Not much activity on here recently—the back half of last term got so madly busy that even the break didn’t give me any time for, well, a break. So I thought I’d better post something before this term starts tomorrow.


Interesting article on the Guardian website yesterday, or rather not really an article. It’s a gallery of European posters from the decades around 1900, presented without much comment. They’re all held by the Century Guild museum in Los Angeles, and the link to the museum website at the top of the page, though it’s given as just centuryguild.net, actually takes you to the museum’s online shop—where, coincidentally, the glossy reproductions on sale are of precisely this set of posters. Still, they’re cracking stuff, even if the gallery is essentially a free (or paid?) advertisement.


It’s a shame that they’re presented without much comment, though, because there’s plenty to comment about. Their place in art history, for a start: not my field at all, but I was immediately struck by the echo between this poster for the 1918 film Alraune and Giovanni Segantini’s 1894 painting The evil mothers, which I saw in a gallery in Vienna nearly twenty years ago and haven’t forgotten. In Alraune, a tree/woman snarls men in her roots: the film is about a demonic woman created by a mad scientist from what the IMDb plot summary calls a ‘forced sexual union’ between a woman and a mandrake root. In Segantini’s deeply creepy painting it’s the women who are snarled up: there are some in the smaller tree in the background too. They’re ‘wicked mothers’, being punished for abandoning—or killing—their babies by being tangled in thorn trees, where little babies’ heads bite them for all eternity. (Segantini’s mother died when he was seven. So.)


You could say more about how Alraune fits into film history, too: it was made in Hungary by Mihály Kertész, who moved to Hollywood in the 1920s and (as Michael Curtiz) later directed Casablanca. It was also remade more than once—indeed, at least twice within a decade or so, in German and American versions (1928 and 1930 respectively) directed by different people but both starring Brigitte Helm, best known as the star of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.Metropolis Helm’s role in Metropolis is complicated: she plays Maria, a prophetic young woman, but she also plays a robot (more mad scientists) who is eventually transformed into a false Maria sent off to engage in all sorts of wickedness to undermine the reputation of the real one. And anyone who’s seen Metropolis (1927) will remember the scene where the false Maria dances in the Yoshiwara bordello, creating a storm of lust among the tuxedo’d men there—men whose twitching, leering faces bear more than a passing resemblance to those in the poster for the 1923 Paris musical Cocaïne at the top of this post.

That poster, though, is also striking for its obvious racism: two of the figures in it are flat-nosed, fat-lipped racist caricatures of African-American jazz musicians in Paris. There are more racist caricatures in the eleven heads on plates in the poster for the German cabaret performers Die Elf Scharfrichter (‘The Eleven Executioners’), about whom I wish I could write some more—they were an early and influential political cabaret act performing in Munich in the first few years of the 1900s. But my German is minimal, and even if my university library had an online subscription to the Oxford Companion to German Literature it seems that the entry there is only 80 words long.*

Shadow and light

I won’t reproduce that poster here because there’s only so much racist caricature I can stomach even with due critical presentation, and there’s a bit more on the way. But it’s unfortunate that the Guardian site reproduces it without any critical presentation at all. It combines racist caricature with the other theme I’ve just outlined, wicked women, in the tall, dark, and skull-faced figure representing the singer Marya Delvard. (‘One thought involuntarily of sin’.)

And that makes for an interesting comparison with the poster for ‘Shadows and Light’, a 1919 Munich dance performance by Peter Pathe and Maria Hagen. The image of Hagen is lily-white, representing light, though the wild hair, razor eyebrows, and pursed, rouged lips hardly suggest innocence or virtue. Pathe and HagenBut what about the figure representing shadow? “The image is suggestive of contemporary Japanese anime”, the gallery’s founder Thomas Negovan says in the Guardian piece. Well, maybe: but it’s also more than suggestive of Nazi antisemitic caricature. Compare it with this poster by the same artist for another performance by Hagen and Pathe, which I found on an auctioneer’s website: Hagen looks pretty similar—if a bit more virtuous—but the prim and demure male figure bears no resemblance at all to the darkly Hebrew ‘Shadow’. Again, you’d have thought that someone—the Guardian writer if not the gallery owner—might have taken a moment to comment on this, rather than just present it for the internet’s appreciation as clickbait, Buzzfeed fashion. (These antisemitic posters are AMAZING!) I wish I knew more about the artist, Walter Schnackenberg. After the second world war his artistic work was a variant on the fantastic that’s light of touch but a bit too dark in character to be whimsical. You can see a couple of selections on 50 Watts (here and here): the second includes posters and costume designs from the 20s, too. But the brief bits of information I dug up in a quick skim through the internet jump from the 20s to the postwar period (he died in 1961). I wonder what happened to him in the 1930s and 40s.

All of this isn’t fingerpointing: ‘hey look people in the past were sexist and racist’ isn’t a very helpful approach to history, and it does nothing to help us understand and combat sexism and racism in our own time. But it is remarkable, or perhaps it isn’t, that a newspaper that purports to be opposed to sexism and racism can present this selection of images with no further comment. They come from across Europe—Belgium, France, Scandinavia, Germany, Hungary—and from spheres ranging across political cabaret, theatre, film, and opera, as well as campaigns for public health and morality. In other words, they give a wide-angle view of cultural history in both senses: that is, the history of how meaning is constructed within a given culture, as well as the narrower history of a given society’s cultural production, whether ‘high’ or ‘low’. They show how the most striking iconography produced across this spectrum, whether by a radical political cabaret troupe or a conservative institution like the military, relied on a visual language where misogyny and racism (including antisemitism) were taken for granted as key reference points.


Writing the history of all this is not the Guardian’s job, but I wish there was even the slightest hint that they’d at least noticed it. It’s hardly hiding: I mean, look where the seductive female figure of Syphilis is holding the skull. But it wasn’t female seductiveness that made syphilis a danger to soldiers, and the real hecatomb that was going on when this poster was produced wasn’t the one caused by syphilis: it was the one being coordinated by the military authorities that produced it.

*In addition to the link in the next paragraph, there are also brief pages on German and French Wikipedia.

Unless otherwise specified, all images are from the Guardian article and sourced from the Century Guild museum, Los Angeles. For other images, click image for source. Thanks to Andromeda for spotting a typo.