Dark desires: Female sexuality in art

What does female sexuality look like in art? Here, it looks like monsters, mermaids, and minotaurs…

In this online exhibition, Te Papa intern Rata Holtslag picks ten works from Te Papa’s art collection that use strange monsters and dark creatures to explore themes of women’s desire, sexuality and power.

In this engraving by Dürer, a fearsome witch rides a goat, her brow aggressively furrowed and teeth bared. Notice that her hair blows to the right, though the goat is leaping in the opposite direction – this reflects the belief that witches were capable of reversing the natural order.

The goat is a classic symbol of lust and the devil. By riding him, the witch embodies unbridled female sexuality – represented here as an equally demonic force.


Albrecht Dürer, Witch riding backwards on a goat, 1501-1502, engraving, ink on paper. Te Papa (1869-0001-129)

Satyrs are half-man, half-goat creatures of classical mythology, known for their rampant drunkenness and lusty sexual appetites. They are often depicted pursuing nymphs and maenads.

But, here, Beham presents his satyr as a woman, a nod to female sexuality and an acknowledgement that women, too, can be lovers of wine and carnal pleasure.


Hans Sebald Beham, Satyr woman playing a bagpipe, about 1531-1550, engraving, ink on paper. Te Papa (1869-0001-28)

Satyrs love women, wine, and song. Here, Dalou presents a satyr fiercely embracing a nymph in a passionate embrace of love.

But look again: when viewed from different angles, you can see that the nymph resists the embrace, pushing forcefully against the satyr’s chest. Dalou’s nymph fights back against his forceful advances.


Aime-Jules Dalou, Nymph and satyr, date unknown, bronze on wood base. Te Papa (1936-0002-1)

L’Idole depicts a naked woman copulating with a satanic statue, staring up at its unconcerned face in adoration. To either side of the central figure, a large phallic column emerges between goat-like feet, another reference to the devil. The woman is at the mercy of her own impulses, making a pact with the devil in pursuit of sexual pleasure.

Rops was a key figure in the decadent movement of the late 19th century that was characterised by crude humour, cynicism, and a pleasure in perversion. His fusion of sex, death, and satanic imagery shocked audiences, then and now.


Félicien Rops, L’Idole (The Idol), 1880-1882, soft-ground etching. Te Papa (2015-0056-11)

In this scene, a beautiful maiden is offered enchanted fruit by goblin men. But a closer look reveals something ominous, as menacing creatures creep towards the maiden while a man watches voyeuristically from the shadows.  

Goblin market was inspired by a poem by Christina Rossetti from 1859, which some interpret as a moral warning about protecting female virginity. Craig hints at this narrative through his use of the pomegranate – symbolic of female fertility – as a central image, presenting Goblin market as a lesson to resist temptation from strange men.


Frank Craig, Goblin market, 1911, oil on canvas. Te Papa (1912-0021-11)

The sleeping mermaid depicts a mermaid lying on the sand, her body slightly askew and her shell bra tossed aside.

Mythology presents mermaids as femme fatales and temptresses, responsible for storms, shipwrecks, and drownings. But here the mermaid is passive, powerless to the male gaze. Through The sleeping mermaid, Weguelin depicts female nudity in such a way that it is the main subject of his work, presenting his libido as an adequate rationale for creativity.


John Weguelin, The sleeping mermaid, 1911, watercolour on paper. Te Papa (1912-0009-1)

In this work, Parker illustrates the gothic tale of “The Fiery Dragon” in which a beautiful maiden is saved from the clutches of a dragon by a heroic knight in shining armour.

The scene exudes a feeling of passion. The maiden is one with flames, her face upturned and arms in the air. The scene speaks to the trope of the “damsel in distress”, but in this image, the maiden is fierce in her femininity. Her presence commands our attention and she appears symbolically (but maybe not literally) empowered.


Agnes Parker, The fiery dragon, 1933, wood engraving. Te Papa (1951-0010-107)

Girl with skull by Don Driver recalls images of the Minotaur, a part-man, part-bull creature of classical mythology. The Minotaur is generally viewed as a symbol of masculinity, sexual insatiability, and the struggle with one’s animal nature.

But Driver’s creature is clearly female, her dress hiked up to reveal enlarged genitals. He uses this slightly crude display of sexuality, perhaps, to hint at women’s beastliness and sexual autonomy.


Don Driver, Girl with skull, 1981, plastic, bone, fabric, synthetic hair, and metal. Te Papa (1987-0003-1)

A chimera emerges from the thick, expressive brush-strokes of Passionate instincts no. 8. Drawn from classical mythology, chimeras are a hybrid animal often used to represent human emotions.

Hunter’s chimeras represent a fierce and wild female sexuality. Where her earlier work explored social implications on women, Passionate instincts no. 8 considers women’s independence and power. Hunter’s chimeras signify a revolution against the patriarchy to reveal her becoming autonomous, both in her art and wider life.


Alexis Hunter, Passionate instincts no. 8, 1984, oil on canvas. Te Papa (1986-0033-1)

Creation by Alexis Hunter is impregnated with ideas of an active female sexuality. Flames charge the landscape with power, as if giving it its own life-force. The fleshy red tones imply a sense of danger. But the creatures that inhabit this environment are not concerned: rather, they appear content within the landscape.

Historically, landscape painting has been the province of masculinity, but Creation fights against this narrative to present a powerful landscape that speaks with a distinctly feminine voice.


Alexis Hunter, Creation, 1987, oil on canvas. Te Papa (1997-0032-1)

My love by Liz Maw draws from classical mythology through incorporation of the Minotaur. With the head of a bull and an in-your-face erect penis, Maw’s subject is a strong symbol of masculinity and sexual insatiability. 

It makes for uncomfortable viewing, but why? Male artists have been showing us sexualised female bodies for centuries, and Maw flips this history on its head in My love, objectifying her subject to present a stark, unromantic male sexuality.


Liz Maw, My love, 2003, oil on board. Te Papa (2003-0043-1)