Postcard from Malaga, Spain: Femmes fatales dominate the walls

“Woman with Pistol,” Julio Ramiro de Torres, 1923

The alluring, perplexing and dangerous attraction of women was in the spotlight this past summer in two exhibitions at the Museo Carmen Thyssen Malaga: “Perversity: Femmes Fatales in Modern Art, 1880-1950” and “Modern and Seductive: Women in the ABC Collection” (1900-1936).

The notes for both exhibitions are thoughtful, so will rely on them. On “Perversity:”

From the eternal feminine to the new woman, this exhibition surveys more than half a century of images featuring women in a period… when their representation in art underwent a paradigm shift as a reflection of the social situation of the time. The exclusively male and misogynist viewpoint came up against women’s questioning of their own identity.

Women went from being passive, sexualized subjects to champions of emancipation and freedom. The perverse fin-de-siècle femmes fatales, icons of a destructive sexuality, gave way to modern women whose perversity lay in their opposition to the established order and their demands of their own, which rocked the foundations of a historically patriarchal society in the throes of transforming revolution.

And on “Modern and Seductive,” illustrators:

…depicted women who were elegant and sophisticated but had vampire wings, and showed them in what were traditionally considered masculine settings. Being modern meant achieving freedom in a world dominated by men, but also using a dangerous beauty to subvert the established canons….

The magazine Blanco y Negro was a pioneer in introducing modern femininity in full color. Founded in 1891 by Torcuato Luca de Tena, it became a lifestyle manual that nobody… could afford to miss if they wanted to keep abreast of the latest trends….

Artists and illustrators did not hesitate to shun the “eternal feminine” and seek inspiration from the femme fatale – a beguiling temptress who ensnares with her charms and subjugates with her gaze….

They all drew the dreams and desires of women determined to break the moulds of their time.

The images below were snapped of works of art from the museum’s permanent collection, as well as these two temporary exhibitions.

There were probably some snide snickers when these exhibitions opened at the Museo Carmen Thyssen Malaga.

Few articles ever written about Maria del Carmen Rosario Soledad Cervera y Fernandez de la Guerra, Dowager Baroness Thyssen-Bornemisza de Kaszon et Imperfalva, fail to mention Carmen Cervera’s 1961 title of “Miss Spain” before referring to her as the fifth and final wife of the late Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza (1921-2002), her third husband. And there, I just did it as well.

(As a further gossipy aside, Tita was also the fifth wife of her first husband, who was perhaps better known in the United States. After Lex Barker succeeded Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan, a New York Times film critic described him as “a younger more streamlined apeman with a personable grin and a torso guaranteed to make any lion cringe.” But his films were panned as “stale peanuts at the same old jungle stand.” He was 54 when he left Tita a widow in 1973.)

And, while the Baron’s children might regard Tita Cervera as a femme fatale, the dowager baroness has moved well beyond her beauty pageant title in her importance in the world of art. Particularly in what she has meant for Spain.

Between art he inherited and that he added, Baron Heini possessed one of the greatest personal art collections in the world. He had so many paintings, he had no place to hang them all. This despite owning numerous expansive abodes in several countries.

The baron personally was courted by President Mitterand of France, the Getty Foundation in California and Prince Charles and Prime Minister Thatcher of England, all touting their respective countries as the best for his collection. Baroness Tita had his ear though. She lobbied for her homeland and won, despite efforts by the Swiss government to prevent the relocation from their palace in Lugano.

Spain donated the Villahermosa Palace near the Prado to house it and paid the Baron somewhere in the neighborhood of $350 million to permanently purchase 775 pieces of his collection for what is called the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza. The museum opened in 1994.

Prior to his death, Baron Heini helped his wife successfully break a trust fund so she would inherit a significant share of his wealth. This allowed Baroness Tita to continue her passion as a collector of significant art. While some of her growing collection is on loan to the Madrid museum, she yearned for a home bearing more of her stamp. And Malaga was agressively striving to further cement its position as an important center for art in Europe.

Malaga restored and adapted a 16th-century residential palace, Palacio de Villalon, to house some of the Dowager Baroness Tita’s collection. The Museo Carmen Thyssen opened in 2011.

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