Maria Hahnenkamp and Gustav Klimt – an encounter of the intertextual kind

In Maria Hahnenkamp’s “Körper-Diskurse” (body discourses) series (2005), female figures are arranged horizontally in the pictorial space. They are lying askew, at odds with the usual situation in image spaces. The bodies are positioned on a sheet of glass, photographed from below through the glass. Lying as they are on a sheet of glass, the bodies appear to anticipate the flatness of their representation in the picture or perhaps to play with the idea of an imprint on the photographic paper. The bodies are torsos, with faces, hands or feet and the like completely omitted. Strips of foil with quotations from Judith Butler’s “The Psychic Life of Power” coil round the bodies, adding a textual element to the picture.

The female bodies entwine elegantly, seeming to glide effortlessly across the ictorial space from left to right. This suggests an association with Gustav Klimt and his representation of femininity. In images such as “Water Serpents II” (1904–07), “Moving Water” (1898) or “Fish Blood” (1898) Klimt’s female figures assume a comparably horizontal position. Coming from the left, the four females in “Water Serpents II” move harmoniously through the image space. None of the figures is on a collision course, nothing suggests territorial fighting. Peaceful coexistence prevails in this underwater world with its little fishes, snails, special fauna and the submarine starry sky. This is not a place of fighting for space, instead it is generated together in the general flow. The bodies in their streamline form echo the dynamics of the water current. Nothing blocks, nothing stops, no arm nor leg in the works. The female water serpents are in their element and none resists the current.

As Carl Schorske (1982) explains, during his Secessionist period Klimt was particularly concerned with exploring a new image of the human being and aligning his artistic research to a world in female form. The nineteenth-century concept of the subject envisages autonomous beings that rigorously mark out their sovereign territory in relation to others. The sovereignty of the self-determined individual has a topographical component as well. The representatives of the Gründerzeit took centre stage, expecting their family, company and social environment to surround them in concentric circles. In this world of fixed outlines and ossified patriarchal structures the aim is to demonstrate steadfastness and staying-power. The new image of man propagated by Freud and the Secessionists had yet to take hold. The fathers of the Gründerzeit stand firm and immovable in their social setting, reflecting themselves in their stately architecture and acting like monoliths inserted vertically in their Historicist salons. But when everyone is standing, gliding becomes an alternative draft. The humanity depicted in the faculty paintings “Philosophy” and “Medicine” has left behind the toil of evolutionary progress, drifting in open space. In this world of cyclic processes, one does not reach one’s goal by means of persistence and effort of will, but rather intuitive knowledge of the laws of the current and the dynamics of the unconscious.

Maria Hahnenkamp’s female figures from her “body discourses” have preserved something of the elegance and utopian constitution of their fin-de-siècle precursors in the present. As bodies tilted out of the vertical, they also revise the classical position of the beholder, creating different spatial situations and introducing a new direction of the gaze. Hips and thighs are not spread in this setting, instead they elegantly assume an aerodynamic form, guiding the scopic desire along the surface, away from the enticements of deep space.

But Hahnenkamp’s figures are still different from Klimt’s protagonists. Their bodies are encircled by strips of text and not by that underwater vegetation that might prompt associations with creatures of nature. Instead of gliding, their movement is nearer to the traversing and crossing of writing and thoughts. In contrast to their “Water Serpent” sisters, depicted in their “natural element”, they are performers of the first water. Pressed against a sheet of glass, they simulate the current that lends direction to their movement. Witty and subversive, they not only present themselves as objects of the corresponding body discourses, but translate these discourses in their own way. Accordingly, they wear the text passages where one would usually expect belts, suspenders or bracelets. Moreover, as performers they appear in everyday clothing, wearing jeans, pullovers and T-shirts. None of them has changed their clothes specially for this demonstration of femininity. Although they are about curves and female forms, no concessions are made to dress codes. Ultimately, it is the ornamental aspect of this choreography of motion that signals femininity. As in other works of Maria Hahnenkamp, “genuine female” aspects are moved out and that makes it easier to get ahead and away.

Monika Schwärzler, 2014

Schorske, C. E. (1982). Wien. Geist und Gesellschaft im Fin De Siècle. Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer Verlag.

Monika Schwärzler – Professor at Webster Vienna Private University, Department of Media Communications; PhD in Philosophy at Vienna University; academic training at the Museum of Modern Art in Vienna; teacher at the Webster University in St. Louis, MO, and in the foreign programme of the University of Oregon; teacher in the International Summer Programme of Vienna University and in the postgraduate Museology courses of Basel University; founder member and member of the Board of the T.K. Lang Gallery at the Webster University. Research fields: Art and media theory, aesthetics and history of photography, visual culture, animated film

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