New York

Elvira Bach

Gabrielle Bryers

Is the sensual female with symbolic snake in Elvira Bach’s hyperexpressive paintings the true “liberated woman”? Yes and no. No, because the idea of woman as temptress is a regressive, preliberation one. Yes, because Bach’s temptress is sufficiently narcissistic to seem self-determined—or at least to be on the verge of transcending woman’s traditional role of existing for man before she exists for herself. Seductiveness both masks and manifests this conventional role; it signals woman’s power, but over man, not herself. It is in the ambiguity of the female figure’s meaning that Bach’s work finds its feminist potential.

While Bach’s vigorous expressivity leaves the old soft feminine sensibility far behind, she is still sufficiently “feminine” to take as her theme woman as temptress. It is the twist she gives to the ancient theme—the new meaning she finds in it—that counts, not the theme itself. In the old idea, the temptress promises man “unbelievable” instinctive gratification; this is the source of her seductiveness—“Temptingness” Bach’s achievement is to picture a heroine whose narcissistic enjoyment of her sexuality signals the birth of autonomous female selfhood. Appropriating the snake, symbol of both sexual power and powerful selfhood, she frees it from its association with man; associated with woman, it bespeaks her potential new ego strength. For Bach, woman’s awareness of her sexuality can issue in self-awareness.

The snake represents “the moment of passion . . . the maximum point . . . the magic of the extreme”—the “expressionist” moment of orgasmic extremism Bach wants to articulate through the “skin” of her paintings. In this moment of passion we lose our selves; but a new self is born through that loss. For the moment of orgasm is the devilish moment when we shed the skin of the old sensual self and emerge as a new “spiritual” one. This is another connotation of the complex snake symbol, as Nietzsche, whom Bach quotes extensively, tells us: “the devil himself is perhaps—skin.” The snake has it both ways, enjoying the forbidden, pure sensuality of being sheer skin, and the power of self-transformation through that enjoyment. It is this double meaning of orgasm—the double meaning embodied in expressionism—that Bach articulates, and that is the basis for her image of woman being at once preliberated and liberated—that is, nothing but sexual and, at the same time, becoming a new self through pure passion. This is why the narcissistic"—self-referential—component of Bach’s erotic paintings is so crucial.

Bach’s paintings are devilish snakeskins of color tempting us to the moment of passion in which we lose our sense of self, but become a new self. (This is the ambition of the best expressionism.) They are her best to date. Some of her vibrant figures have a marvelous lightninglike angularity, eloquently at odds with the surging color. One important fact about them is that unlike the figures in the paintings of the male Berlin “neo-Fauves,” her figures do not so much emerge from the fluid ground as rest on it. The independence of Bach’s female figure from the ground —its autonomy—seems an important part of her feminist outspokenness. The difference may be between a male self that is sufficiently strong to fear no self-loss as it submerges itself in the stream of primary process and becomes fantastic, and a female self, lifting itself out of that stream in a fantastic act of self-assertion. Bach recreates the aggressive phallic woman to symbolize a new sense of female self-possession.

Donald Kuspit