Portraits of Mata Hari: The Creation of an Oriental Identity

Since her dramatic execution by firing squad in 1917, Mata Hari has become an object of fascination in art, pop culture, and academia.[1] She led a scandalous life that contained all the components of a Hollywood spy thriller: aliases, femmes fatales, sex, and espionage. There has been continual debate in the academic community about the espionage accusations; was she was actually a German spy or simply a victim of misogyny? However intriguing, these questions have come to overshadow the more understated, but equally fascinating, aspects of her life — such as the careful crafting of her self-image. Her persona was shaped using a variety of methods, one of which was photographic portraiture. At first glance, Mata Hari’s portraits appear to be nothing more than a woman dressed in baubles and exposing a little skin. However, these images were created with the public in mind, using much deeper appeals than pure eroticism. Mata Hari utilized society’s fascination with the Orient and the role of the male gaze in this trend to bolster her self-constructed image as an exotic sex symbol.

The Multiple Lives of Mata Hari

Mata Hari, 1910
Wikimedia Commons

In order to understand the image Mata Hari attempted to convey through her photographs, one must first understand her biography. She came into the world as Margaretha Geertruida Zelle. Born to a bourgeois family in the small Dutch town of Leeuwarden, she lived a mostly quiet life until marrying Captain MacLeod at age eighteen. Being an officer’s wife required her to move from one exotic locale to another, going from Java to Medan. During this period, she spent most of her time in the house reading, acquiring a rudimentary understanding of Hinduism and the Malayan language. Captain MacLeod retired in 1902, and relocated his tiny family back to the Netherlands. In this claustrophobic environment, the couple’s already tumultuous marriage finally dissolved. The Captain disowned Margaretha, leaving her without any form of income, and with that she set out for Paris with no money and a limited French vocabulary. She was quoted as saying: “I thought that all women who ran away from their husbands went to Paris.”[2] When she first arrived, she modeled for a painter as a means of income and served as a circus equestrian until she found a more efficient means of living. Exotic dancing was in high demand in a society enamored with the recently explored East. After taking a wealthy lover who introduced her to various members of high society, she debuted an arresting, erotic dance act at a prestigious singer’s salon.[3] Thus began the notorious and fascinating career of Mata Hari.

To suit her ambitions, Margaretha invented a melodramatic origin story that was continuously changed and embellished throughout her career.[4] She claimed to be born in Southern India to an English officer’s family, becoming a temple dancer following the death of her mother. Margaretha maintained that the dances she learned in the Temple were a form of Shiva worship, justifying her overt sensuality to the wealthy oriental enthusiasts of Paris. Through these fake biographies, she declared herself an authority on the East and exotic dance, though she had little experience with the art beyond a performance given at an Indonesian officers’ club.[5] It cast her as the heroine in a myth of her own making, creating a shroud of mystery, curiosity, and sensuality around her persona. Though this was not an unusual practice for dancers and courtesans of the time, no other backstory charmed the Western world more than Mata Hari’s. By many accounts she was a poor dancer, whose real power resided in her ability to charm, seduce, and convey a sexualized image by manipulating society’s obsession with the Orient.[6] Her portraiture reinforces this mythos, in the hopes that she would gain the attention she always craved.

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  1. Coulson, Thomas. Mata Hari: Courtesan and Spy. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1930. 3.
  1. Bentley, Toni. Sisters of Salome. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002. 97.
  1. Ibid, 90-94.
  1. Coulson, Thomas. Mata Hari: Courtesan and Spy. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1930. 10-14.
  1. Bentley, Toni. Sisters of Salome. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002. 95.
  1. Toepfer, Karl. “Nudity and Modernity in German Dance, 1910-1930.” Journal of the History of Sexuality 3 (1992): 60.

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