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Franz von Stuck (1863-1928). Neue Pinakothek – Munich. 1893.

Franz von Stuck was born in 1863 in a small town of lower Bavaria in Germany. He sought to become a painter and artist already when he was very young, only fourteen years of age. He worked through a period of early learning in the arts in a lesser-known arts-and-crafts- school of Munich, and entered the Munich Academy of painting in 1881. He painted and sculpted. He worked for the magazine ‘Jugend’, and he embraced fully the Jugendstil, a symbolist movement in Germany. He was in 1892 one of the founders of the ‘Münchner Sezession’, a group of artists that wanted to innovate German art and break with the traditions of the then well established painters. The ‘Munich Secession’ was the first movement of progressive artists who led the art of painting into new styles of representation. The Munich Secession dates from 1892; it was followed in 1897 by the Secession of Vienna in Austria and in 1899 by the Secession of Berlin. From 1995 on he was a professor at the same Academy of Munich for which he had been a few years before a contestant. Around 1897 to 1898 he built his ‘Stuck-Villa’ in Munich and decorated the building, developing his ideas of total symbolist art. His favourite themes were mythological scenes and allegories. His best-known picture is ‘Sin’, of which he made many versions in the period of from 1891 to 1912. This painting had an enormous success in Germany. He died in Munich in 1928.

Franz von Stuck’s ‘Sin’ is a painting that is simple in structure. It receives its striking image not from its structure of lines, though the lines are very vertical. The main effect of the painting is engendered by the contrasts in the colours and by the concept of the picture.

‘Sin’ shows a woman who denudes her breast and belly, but who otherwise remains in the darkness of an alcove. A snake lies on her right shoulder and that snake curves around the back of the woman’s neck, along her left shoulder. Von Stuck brought all the brightness of light on the nude parts of the woman’s body. The massive gilded frame of the painting adds to the contrast that is already in the picture, the contrast between the subject of the woman that exposes her body to the viewer and the richness of the surrounding. Such heavy frames were common in Jugendstil. The symbolist artists designed elaborate frames for their pictures. The golden colour emphasises the strange atmosphere that emanates from the picture. How it does that need further analysis.

Complex and diverse feelings come onto the viewer when he or she stands in front of Von Stuck’s painting. The picture is called ‘Sin’ and not ‘Temptation’, yet the first emotion of the viewer could be the fascination of the woman on the passing-by spectator. The woman could be a prostitute waiting in a dark alley of Munich for a willing client. She tempts the viewer to follow her by opening her gown and showing in the light of a lantern the whiteness of her flesh. In scant light contrasts of brightness are enhanced, as von Stuck showed in his picture. The woman’s flesh so exposed in the light might tempt a man seeking relieve of sexual desires and women in quest of sensations. Prostitution must remain anonymous in order to be easier consumed without remorse, so the woman’s face stays in the darkness of the night. Prostitution then can remain an act in which there is no involvement in the persons that will indulge in the desire and the sexual act. The viewer is a voyeur first, but the woman can retain her personality outside the exposure and outside the sexual act.

Von Stuck shows however also the face of the woman in the painting, though hidden in sombre tones. The woman’s eye is vivid and the snake unfolds near her face. The viewer remarks the symbol of the original sin in the snake. It was a snake that tempted Eve to eat first the fruit from the tree of knowledge, and Eve tempted Adam. Temptation will lead to embroil the viewer soon in an act that is sin, the transgression of religious and community laws. The viewer knows that the sin of Adam – and Eve – led to death, to mankind becoming mortal creatures, to decadence and expulsion from Paradise. Adam and Eve repudiated God’s command so that they were condemned to suffering. A man or woman that will lay with the naked body of von Stuck’s painting may well be chased from Paradise too, from their cosy paradise. They will meet trouble and punishment. God may doom the viewer’s soul forever and the Munich police may apprehend the transgressor and make it know to Bavarian society that this man or woman pursues prostitutes. In the Bavaria of the end of the nineteenth century, that public knowledge would have meant exclusion from public society of the better-to-do, the magistrates, the notables and the military of the country.

The woman is not a woman but woman. She represents evil. Von Stuck made that clear by having the woman accompanied by a snake. The snake indicates danger. The woman has control in the dark alley, not the viewer. Will the woman be able to control the snake forever? The viewer can pass by or get involved. Getting involved means to seek danger. One may lose one’s own world in there, with the woman and the snake.

We believe that as long as there is temptation only, there is no sin. The sin is only in the act after the viewer has yielded to the temptation. Is that truly so? Is that so for all religions? According to the New Testament, Jesus Christ told that there is already sin in the desire, in the looking. ’Thou shalt not covet’. Envy is a capital sin. So, sin is immediate. Von Stuck presented a picture that is sin for every spectator that has come to see his work in an exhibition. The painting is sin. Von Stuck’s title is right. The woman represents sin as much as temptation and the picture in itself is sin. Sin is not what is represented, the painting is sin. Von Stuck made sin.

In real world, it takes courage for a passer-by to accept to the temptation, for the snake is dangerous and the woman in the darkness is a predator. The woman is the snake. The woman hides her face, but she is master of the situation and the snake that she is may bite, may kill.

When the viewer joins the woman in the darkness, the brilliance of the white flesh will disappear and the viewer will enter a world that is not his or her world, but the world of the woman and of the snake. The viewer will pass a borderline. He or she will voluntarily enter a world that must be a realm of decadence, of moral evil, and then sin will really take hold in its most complete and fulfilled form. The frame of the painting is thus a door to another world. Yet, will that knowledge keep viewers from stepping into the darkness? The other world tempts with its mystic, the mystic of the unknown. The viewer is curious and may be longing for adventure and submit to the attraction of the unknown. Are not people constantly in quest of sensations? Sensations make one feel one is alive. Why pursue a life of good, live a boring life, when adventure looms a step beyond the frame?

There is a concept in Christianity that is called atonement. God will forgive one’s sins and erase the stain of sin on one’s soul when one shows true atonement. It suffices in Roman Catholicism to go to a priest, confess the sin, atone, and be cleaned from the sin. Priests can forgive in God’s name. If one can get away from the punishment of society, from the society that knows no atonement and little forgiveness, then one can get away from the condemnation by God. But does not the soul always die a little, until no atonement and no forgiveness can be sought? Not all religions say that God can deliver pardon through priests. Sin deprives always - to some extent and forever - of moral good. The stain on one’s soul will stay. Does the penance really remove the stain? Is confession and penance the reason why in history Catholicism has been such a successful religion?

These and other emotions and thoughts must pass in the mind of the viewer of von Stuck’s painting ‘Sin’. It is a picture that by its subject and concept only, appeals strongly to the viewer. Paintings of nude women were made before von Stuck and these may have led viewers to envy and desire, but none showed temptation, evil and sin so clearly. None of these paintings claimed to be sin, as did Franz von Stuck’s. Many citizens of Munich and Berlin came to the exhibition halls in which von Stuck’s work hung, to walk by this picture and experience the forbidden attraction. Coming there was sin. Von Stuck’s work was sin, and defiance to God’s laws and yet to be seen by everyone. No wonder the reactions of the bourgeoisie and the clergy to this painting was strong and controversial. It was also a very moral work, as it pointed to the dangers of sin, so it had its defenders.

‘Sin’ is a very powerful picture, and hence this painting will remain one of the main icons of the art of painting of religious themes. Franz von Stuck showed the fascination of men for sexual desire. In view of the main religious tendencies of his time and country, his picture meant much more than just an image.

The object of desire was the white flesh of the woman. Jugendstil, also called ‘Art Nouveau’ in other countries of Europe, was fascinated by the attraction of and for women. For ‘Art Nouveau’ artists, women - and more often than not – the alluring, nude, attractive, dangerous, light and accessible women, the women of theatres and cabarets, became one of the main themes of the representation of that art. Mostly however, the subject was taken up with respect and pure admiration and without thoughts or references to moral evil. Von Stuck’s ‘Sin’ was a picture of that Jugendstil art at the extreme. It showed the dangers of such art. Many other artists represented the attraction and temptation of the dangers. With von Stuck’s pictures like ‘Sin’, Jugendstil and ‘Art Nouveau’ were called decadent art. The style of Jugendstil is still much considered such today. It was the art style that marked a society of Europe that led the continent straight into the horrors of World War I, with the punishment after sin terrible in death and destruction. It will always be a controversy whether artists like von Stuck created that society or were merely the expressions of it.

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Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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