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Posted July 11, 2011
About Time and Perception
Bram Dijkstra is a professor emeritus of comparative literature and cultural history at the University of California, San Diego. Because of his background it is not surprising that this book on art of the nude in America should be more focused on a dissertation about cultural mores and the changes that have taken place since the beginning of the country's history. It makes for excellent reading and does provide ample examples of how we as a society view both the famale and male nude and why times alter the 'correct' art perception.
This hefty book presents the nude in American art, photography, and popular culture, from the eighteenth century to the present. There are some 400 illustrations exploring the history of the subject from its earliest manifestations in the paintings of John Singleton Copley and Benjamin West to the taboo-shredding imagery of late-twentieth-century artists such as Alice Neel, Robert Mapplethorpe, Eric Fischl, and John Currin. While many of the art works are familiar (Mapplethorpe and Arthur Tress are certainly as familiar as the paintings of Keith Haring, Judy Chicago, David Ligare, Charles Demuth, etc), there are many works by artists less well known such as William James' sculptural pieces, the art of Renee Cox, Wayne Healy, Richard Artschwager and even 'The Girlie Show' by the esteemed Edward Hopper!
In chronological and thematic order, the book demonstrates the links between the work of some of the most famous names in the history of American painting (Chase, Cassatt, Hopper), sculpture (French, Powers), and photography (Cunningham, Weston), and that of the outlaw hordes of cartoonists, book-cover illustrators, and visual extremists who, particularly during the last half-century, were able to turn the United States into the world's principal purveyor of erotic fantasies. Dijkstra discusses the Victorian prudery, the rise of pinup girls and the influence of Freudian psychoanalysis in the manner of his discussion about how we 'face' the nude on the museum, the gallery, and the home wall and in the media as well.
It is easy to become involved in this collection of imagery and though the book is weighty, there certainly is much more that could be said (and shown) about this enigmatic topic. Perhaps there will be a Volume II. Certainly museums have borrowed exhibitions based on the coverage this book has received form the press and the public as well.
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