Vampires: Myths and Metaphors of Enduring Evil

By Peter Day | Go to book overview

Sex, Death, and Ecstasy: The Art of Transgression

Lois Drawmer

Tales of the vampire, ghosts, witches and the occult proliferate in the nineteenth century, and provide enduring themes for artists of the period. This paper will explore the ways in which evil, sexuality, and religious ecstasy are conflated in British and European art.

From the mid-nineteenth century, Victorian art both incorporated and provided a framework for the dominant discourses of science, religion and sexuality. In the last decades of the century, particularly through the works of the Pre-Raphaelites and Symbolist artists, recurrent depictions of death, sexuality and representations of the esoteric are mapped onto the locus of the female form.

The rapid growth of industrialisation and subsequent urban development in Victorian Britain irrevocably altered social organisation. The challenges to orthodox Christianity and the perceived threat to patriarchy in the development of the women's movement received a backlash in the resurgence of reactionary ideology of “deviant” female sexuality, through metaphors of infection, contamination, predatory behaviour and pathological sexual desires. Indeed, the concept of women as harbingers of infection, addiction, and ultimately death, collides in social concerns as well as in symbolic form in art of the period. William Acton's The Functions and Disorders of the Reproductive Organs (1857) promotes a moral paradigm of female sexuality which constructs male sexual desire and activity as natural and innate, and female sexual desire or pleasure as pathologically deviant – the product of a diseased mind and body:

I should say that the majority of women (happily for
them) are not very much troubled with sexual feeling of
any kind. What men are habitually, women are
exceptionally. It is too true, I admit, as the divorce
courts show, that there are some few women who have
sexual desires so strong that they may surpass those of
men […] I admit, of course, the existence of sexual
excitement terminating even in nymphomania, a form of
insanity which those accustomed to visit lunatic asylums
must be fully conversant with.1

Both the artists Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones produced prolific representations of women in the forms of the femme fatale, which transmute male anxieties about female sexuality into concepts of excessive, transgressive demoniac sexuality.

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