Running Scared: Femme Fatale in Tel Aviv

If ever there were a misogynistic exhibit, “Femme Fatale” at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art seemed to fit the bill, with its scores of works portraying woman as the nemesis of the noble male — woman as temptress, poisoner, executioner, seductress, devourer, murderer, emasculator. In short, the personification of evil.

From Igael Tumarkin’s sentry with revolvers for breasts to Edvard Munch’s vampire sinking teeth into lover’s neck, from Rembrandt’s Adam cowering before a cunning Eve to Goya’s towering females beating tiny naked men in the personae of plucked chickens, from Theodor van Elsen’s spider harlot named Mamzelle Syphilis to Brigitte Bardot as a lascivious sex symbol, woman is nothing less than the feared and hated Other. Under the guise of bat, spider, scorpion, and snake woman lies in wait to ensnare, to pounce upon, to trick, to sting, to strangle her male victim.

For four months this past season Greta Garbo’s penetrating gaze beside the words “Femme Fatale — Destructive Woman” dominated colorful banners in the cultural heart of Tel Aviv. And Garbo’s magic worked: the public flocked to see what she was publicizing: a provocative and disturbing exhibit examining the dangerous-woman myth through the ages. The draw seemed wider than traditional museum public, including adolescent girls and young women soldiers.

Works portraying woman as danger cut across time and geography. Biblical Eve, Delilah, Potiphar’s wife, Judith, and Bathsheba. Greek mythology’s Helen of Troy, Circe, Harpies, Sphinx, and Medusa. The New Testament’s Whore of Babylon, Rome’s Cleopatra, Medieval Lucretia, Celtic Morgan le Fey, performers like Sarah Bernhardt, spies like Mata Hari. The artwork was beautifully reproduced in the show’s accompanying catalogue.

Not surprisingly, Lilith formed part of the show. Lilith, the first wife of Adam, banished from the Garden of Eden for refusing to surrender her independence, was represented in three works. The most daring and powerful Lilith was a repulsive reptilian figure crouching on all fours, clinging high upon the wall over viewers’ heads. Lilith’s ochre skin exuded repugnance, her cold green glass eyes reflected malice. This Lilith is the creation of contemporary American artist Kiki Smith, one of two women artists in the exhibit. The other, early 20th century Vera Willoughby, painted among other works a garish Salome chuckling as she cradled the decapitated head of her victim.

The unrelenting message: woman not only harms, she relishes harming. But the evil woman is not hideous, she is also beautiful sensual, and irresistible. Normally powerful man is helpless against her: he can only cower and await defeat.

And here lay the power and thrust of this extraordinary exhibit. “Femme Fatale” did not illustrate women at all. Instead it was an illustration par excellence of men’s attitudes towards women, showing more than any text that men fear what they perceive as women’s power over them. As curator Doron J. Lurie put it: “We knew this exhibit wasn’t politically correct, but we took the risk. We didn’t mock women, we collected the best pieces we could from around the world…The femme fatale is after all a myth: a myth invented by men.”