Monday, May 16, 2011

Uneasy Truce: The War Between the Sexes in US Art

Review of Naked: The Nude in America by Bram Dijkstra

As a coffee table book, Bram Dijsktra’s Naked: The Nude in America has a lot going for it. It is big, it is beautiful, it is a conversation starter. Even better, it is controversial, with plenty of gorgeous images you’ve never seen, some you’ve seen and half forgotten, others so shocking you’d be happy to forget, (except when you want to see them again). Best of all, Naked is eminently readable.

©Naked: The Nude in America,
Rizzoli New York, 2010.
Bram Dijkstra is Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature and Cultural History at University of California, San Diego. As a cultural historian, his focus is the cultural importance of the art, the context in which it appeared and the narrative it furthered. He starts with the contradictory effects of misguided American puritanism – that the campaign to make nudity and sexuality forbidden thereby made them irresistible.

The Forge of Vulcan
John Singleton Copley
Dijkstra’s story is of male domination, female acquiescence and surrender. When the fight appears won, the artists (both male and female), strike out for more forbidden territory and the nudes get younger and younger (both male and female). Symbolic references abound, such as the oval mirror representing female sexuality. Later, widely-accepted pseudo-scientific theories misapplied to evolution both thrill and warn the male population of the base nature of the female – as a siren intent on enticing men to serve her sexual destiny. In poetic terms, this is the age of vagina dentata.

Soon after, the larger European art story, the deconstruction of art into modernism, invades the US and all figurative art becomes “vulgarity.” This notion functions as received wisdom from American art critic, Clement Greenberg, “then the ruling satrap of abstraction.”“Serious” art deconstructs the body into cubism, expressionism, surrealism and abstraction. But instead of surrendering representation entirely, in the US the story takes an unexpected twist. Illustration, in the guise of cartoons, comic books, and pulp fiction cover art makes a fetish of body parts, especially breasts, vaginae and penises (although penises are not on covers).  Later, abstraction waning after its heyday, the battle lines blur and cross again, with serious art using sexually explicit body parts expertly represented, and illustration devolving into ever more crude content and styles. In the end, Dijkstra seeks rapprochement, “to the simple, unadorned realities of everyday the naked truth of life itself.”2

Ganymede (Lyric Poetry Series)
Henry Oliver Walker
It’s a compelling story, but it is after all, a story told by a man, and though true enough, perhaps not the whole truth. Being a woman, an artist and an anthropologist means that I bring a different gender, visual and cultural perspective to any reading of art purporting to be universal. That’s why Naked is so much fun. There is so much to learn, so much to like and much with which to take issue in this huge beauty of a book. For example, in chapter one, Dijkstra’s explanation for The Forge of Vulcan (1754) by John Singleton Copley, is an opening tour de force, unmasking, so to speak, the “playfully obscene visual iconography”3 which young American artists were acquiring from the French and Italian rococo.

[The “Forge of Vulcan” is perhaps] the first painting by an American-born artist to feature a female nude with an explicitly erotic theme[.] Copley chose to emphasize what has remained an indelible association in American culture to this day: the suggestion that sex and violence are two sides of the same coin.4

Cover for Cupid's Capers
Enoch Boles
I readily admit it: I never would have guessed either the hidden message of the piece or its place in history. Thereafter follows a most delightful collection of naked American beauties produced in the new republic. Art from this period is polished, luscious, playful, contemplative, sometimes simple, sometimes complex with putti, flowers, forests, draperies and bedsheets.

There are way too many to name, and over 400 artists included in the book from post-colonial days to present. The publisher’s promotion list of artists represented hits only the highlights of the most well known: Romare Bearden, Paul Cadmus, John Singleton Copley, Imogen Cunningham, John Currin, Eric Fischl, Keith Haring, Edward Hopper, John Koch, Willem de Kooning, Abraham Leon Kroll, George Platt Lynes, Robert Mapplethorpe, Bruce Nauman, Alice Neel, Isamu Noguchi, Georgia O’Keeffe, Catherine Opie, Herb Ritts, Man Ray, John Singer Sargent, Edward Steichen, Alfred Stieglitz, Jock Sturges, Andy Warhol, Benjamin West, Edward Weston, Andrew Wyeth.

Breaking the Pose (The Art Class)
Jerome Witkin
In addition, Naked includes many real gems from the lesser known and less exhibited artists. One work I especially enjoyed seeing in the book is my favorite sculpture, Joy of the Waters (1917) by Harriet Whitney Frishmuth. I was a teenager when I saw this beautiful bronze in 1964 in the window of a garden ornament shop on 40th St. in New York City. It is a figure of a naked girl, with arms in the air and one leg raised, about to do a cartwheel. I saw it again in 1967 and I wrote a long poem about it. Frishmuth lived until 1980 and the sculpture was still being cast at least until 1972. I still wish I could have afforded to buy it on the spot, so seeing it in Naked was like a joyful homecoming.

Other works I especially enjoyed discovering (naming only a fraction) include Ariadne Asleep on the Island of Naxos (1809-1814) by John Vanderlyn, Female Nude Perched on a Stool (1858) by Daniel Huntington, Ruffina (1875) by William Shirlaw, Autumn Gathering Leaves (1902) by John La Farge, and Betty Page, Crandon Park Beach, Miami (1954), by Bunny Yeager.

Kate Moss on a White Horse
Nan Goldin
One particularly striking work done in 1869-70 is a crayon, oil and graphite piece on canvas, Evening (Fall of Day) by William Rimmer. In this piece Rimmer represents an essentially de-sexed, but physically imposing mature male with wings even broader than the Nike of Samothrace. His body arcs full frontal into the sky with one toe touching the horizon. The halo of a full moon (symbol of the “soul-destructive” world of night and women) surrounds his head and shoulders as his right arm reaches skyward out of the halo trying to grasp the last moments of the day (the symbol of the life affirming world of man’s power). Nothing else but Dijkstra’s explanation could make Rimmer's piece comprehensible. That being said, the composition, draftsmanship, imagination and portrayal of dying desperation make this piece arresting in its own right. Without Dijkstra’s explanation, we might enjoy the work visually, but move on wondering what on earth would possess the artist to represent a sexless man in such agony. Thanks to Dijkstra's scholarship, we can appreciate it both for what it looks like and what it represents in the history of American nudes.

Superman Fantasy
Arthur Tress
In another piece also with a compositional halo effect, Dijkstra’s explanation is less convincing. Mother and Child (The Oval Mirror), ca. 1899, by Mary Stevenson Cassatt shows a naked three-year old boy with his mother who is wearing a dressing gown . He seems to be standing on her thigh, leaning on her body so that his cheek is next to hers, his left arm around her neck, her hand lovingly engulfing his. In contrast, his right hand has a child’s hold on her thumb. Behind their heads, a mirror in an mahogany frame focuses their love. Although at times the piece has been called The Florentine Madonna because of its similarity to typical Italian Madonna and Child works, Dijkstra connects the oval shape of the mirror to the vagina mythology. In his interpretation, Cassatt is representing the gender ideology of a childlike and innocent-in-spirit mother urging her son to greatness. To his credit, he admits that the interpretation is perhaps “tendentious.”5

Untitled (Art Lover)
Russell Patterson
 Surprisingly, I found one real failure of understanding erotica – and it occurs late in the book, when Dijkstra is being most conciliatory, thinking along the lines that the war between the sexes is over, we survived it, let’s just be people together. In looking at Nan Goldin’s Kate Moss on a White Horse (2001), Dijkstra finds only suggestions of “comfort, trust and parallel beauty.”6 However, to me, being female, this is the most erotic piece in the entire book, instantly riveting. Any woman who has ridden bareback on a horse only has to see this image to know that bareback and naked astride a horse is another level of erotica entirely. All of the hidden messages of masculine strength and feminine dependency are represented in the woman’s dangling leg, dreamy expression and the horse’s head turning to acknowledge the presence of its rider and seemingly, her purpose.

The lapse is small and unimportant in the larger scheme of the book which grows out of the author’s youthful discovery of a stack of pulp magazines and comic books left behind by an American soldier in a Dutch second-hand bookstore after World War II. As he writes in a note introducing the bibliography of works cited, “The lust for forbidden knowledge is all the encouragement a twelve-year-old boy needs to keep him doggedly pursuing the motives for metal bras in science fiction illustrations, or the double-entendres of a Matt Baker ‘headlights’ comic....”7
Of Yin and Yang
Ynez Johnston

All in all, the book represents the male point of view very admirably, and frankly, the fact that I come at the subject from a different gender viewpoint only served to heighten my enjoyment and appreciation of this impressive assemblage of art and scholarship.

For a sampling of the art in Naked, you see a variety of the images here. Some of images mentioned in this review are not shown due to restrictions on the publisher. At least some are visible individually the internet.

By Bram Dijkstra
Hardcover 9.75” x 11” / 476 pages / 450 illustrations
$75 U.S., $88 Canadian, £45 UK
Rizzoli New York
ISBN: 978-0-8478-3366-5
Release date: November, 2010

Georgette in Giverny Garden, William de Leftwich Dodge
1. p. 212.
2. p. 469.
3. p.  25.
4. pp. 21-23.
5. p. 175.
6. p. 458.
7. p. 470.

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