By Joe Tash
In his new book, Bram Dijkstra delves into musty museum basements and collectors’ closets to unveil what he considers a taboo treasure of American art — paintings, drawings, photographs and sculptures of the naked human body.
Dijkstra, a Del Mar resident and professor emeritus of comparative literature and cultural history at UCSD, recently released “Naked — The Nude In America,” in which he displays more than 400 works by prominent and lesser-known artists, and makes the case that America still embraces prudish inhibitions when it comes to images of unclothed men and women.
“No subject has ever been the source of as many contradictory emotional impulses as the potentially so very lovely and pleasurable contemplation of the human body,” wrote Dijkstra in the book’s introduction. “I have always believed we should be grateful for the many joys our bodies offer us, but all too often our society tries to turn those joys into a motive for tears.”
Dijkstra joined the faculty of UCSD in 1966, and taught there until 2000, when he retired to devote more time to research and writing. His previous books include “Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin-de-Siecle Culture” and “Evil Sisters: The Threat of Female Sexuality in Twentieth-Century Culture.” His wife, Sandra Dijkstra, is a literary agent.
His new book is an oversized volume filled with glossy color and black-and-white images, published by Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., of New York.
In an interview, Dijkstra said he decided to undertake a study of the nude in American art because so little had been written on the subject. The last similar book, he said, was written some 35 years ago.
The lack of such scholarly studies, he said, “is in a sense reflective of the way in which Americans dance around the idea of nudity. It’s always there in American life but it’s a fascination that dare not speak its name.”
Over the past 50 years, said Dijkstra, American art museums have given in to pressure from puritanical donors and patrons who don’t want nude images displayed on museum walls.
As a consequence, he wrote in the book, “American museums have relegated to deep storage virtually all painted (or for that matter, sculpted) versions of attractively nude (or recognizably naked) humanity…”
Instead, Dijkstra said, today the only acceptable nudes are either abstracts, or those portraying the human form in an ironic or fetishistic manner.
Among the contradictions surrounding the nude form, Dijkstra said, is the advertising and marketing that features glamorous, provocatively dressed, anorexic women, which he described as an unattainable beauty, and which drives many people to mistreat their own bodies in despair, leading to the rise in obesity in America.
Ironically, he said, although Americans maintain a puritanical aversion to accepting the naked body as a source of beauty, our country is one of the largest producers of pornography in the world.
“By trying to repress the presence of beauty in our society… we create a complex group of anti-imagery, imagery that goes against a sense of beauty,” he said.
The book include paintings by such well-known artists as Andrew Wyeth, and examples of popular art such as comic-book and pulp-fiction book covers. One image shows model Kate Moss nude on the back of a white horse.
Among his favorites, said Dijkstra, are a study of an abused woman by artist Natalie Frank, because of the story it tells and its sympathy for the painting’s main figure.
He also cherishes is a photograph of pinup model Bettie Page posing on a beach because of the joyous abandon captured by photographer Bunny Yeager.
Gathering the permissions necessary from artists and photographers to display and write about their work was a story in itself. One artist’s heirs would only consent if the entire book was about the artist in question, while another said Dijkstra could only understand the work — and thereby be granted permission to use it — if Dijkstra would first convert to Vedanta, a Hindu philosophy.
While he was unable to secure permission for all of the works he sought, the book does contain a wide variety of artists and subjects with the common theme of the nude figure in American art, and the virtual banishment of such works in contemporary life.
“American society refuses to deal with the issue of what is naked, nude, the bare truth of existence in a sensitive, direct and straightforward fashion. And that is what I’m trying to do with this book,” Dijkstra said.
IF YOU GO
Bram Dijkstra will give a lecture about his new book and sign copies of the book at an event set for 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 11, at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego’s La Jolla location, 700 Prospect St., La Jolla. Free for museum members, $5 for seniors and students and $7 for the general public.