YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Professor's Work Examines Negative Images of Women

February 16, 1987|MONA GABLE | Gable is a Los Angeles writer

What kind of man would spend 15 years obsessed with thousands of images of naked women? Or poring over depictions of women so thoroughly emaciated they seem on the verge of death? And then cull more than 300 reproductions of those images for a lavishly illustrated book--a book he dedicates to "the many brilliant women who have taught me most of what I know"?

A mild-mannered, 48-year-old professor with sandy hair and glasses who wears Birkenstocks, jeans and a V-neck sweater vest over a blue button-down shirt. A man who when asked about his politics calls himself a feminist.

"Sure," Bram Dijkstra said, his thin frame hunched over a table in a noisy Laguna Beach restaurant. "I certainly am a feminist in the sense of what the feminists stand for, the survival of humane values in the world."

Despite his penchant for decidedly lurid images of women in art, Dijkstra can probably make such a claim. A professor of comparative literature at the University of California, San Diego, he is the author of a new book entitled "Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin de Siecle Culture" (Oxford: $37.95), an ambitious, penetrating study of the development of 19th-Century misogyny in art, literature and science.

Male Paranoia

Still, male paranoia toward women is hardly the kind of subject you would expect a man to write about. "As a matter of fact," Dijkstra said with a laugh, "I've been asking myself that question too.

"I think I was more sensitive to this theme because I grew up in an all-female household," said Dijkstra, who was born in Indonesia and raised in the Netherlands. "My father was interned in a Japanese prison camp and died soon after the war. My mother and my older sisters were so very capable, so able to survive independently during and after the war, that I was puzzled that people have these ideas about women."

Dijkstra said that the book also grew out of his long-standing interest in the visual arts and that he was researching a book on modernism when he became curious over the movement's disdain for 19th-Century painting.

"The general attitude in our culture at that time was that the work of the academic painters was so absolutely reactionary and abominable that no one should even look at it."

Intrigued, he began studying turn-of-the-century art and was stunned by what he saw: images of women that ran from hollow-eyed creatures lying on their deathbeds to voluptuous goddesses sprawled across grassy fields.

"I began to see there were certain patterns in the art," he said, "in the narratives, and I began to wonder why should women be represented in these specific forms time and time again?"

Dijkstra believes that social Darwinism and other scientific theories were instrumental in discrimination against women, resulting in profoundly negative images of women in turn-of-the-century literature and art. And in "Idols of Perversity," he argues his case by analyzing not only the scientific literature of the period, but the works of such esteemed writers as Emile Zola, Henry James, Mark Twain and Charles Baudelaire, and of obscure and famous artists. Not even the revered Impressionists--including Renoir, Degas and Manet--escape his scorn in this 400-plus page book.

"Our sense of the late 19th-Century art is of all these lovely ladies strolling around with parasols," he said, clearly bemused. "One of the ironies is we've developed a nostalgia for that period. But we can only maintain that notion if we don't look at the art represented in my book. It is not all sunshine and light."

Take, for example, "At the Edge of the Abyss" (1890), which depicts a naked woman and a snake who "conspire to make an end of a young man who is naively seeking no more than a kiss from a beautiful lady." As Dijkstra sees it, this "serpent-eyed temptress" is about to send him "crashing down into the deepest and coldest crevasses of Mother Earth's regressive body."

Or Arthur Hacker's "The Temptation of Sir Perceval" (1894), which shows a man "so fresh and intellectual that his spirituality surrounded him like a saint's halo," being "stalked by a lady of catlike mien whose only wish was to dissipate our hero's manly virtue."

These paintings, Dijkstra points out, belong to a large group of works featuring sexually voracious women intent on destroying men's souls. And according to Dijkstra, they reflect the turn-of-the-century male view that women were such primitive, evil beings they could literally thwart evolution.

Dijkstra contends that the exaggerated concepts of femininity and masculinity that became culturally ingrained in the 19th Century were influenced largely by Darwin, who believed that since the origins of human life were bisexual, sexual differentiation was a sign of evolution. Thus, Dijkstra said, scientists concluded that the "more manly a man was, the more evolved he was, and the more feminine a woman was, the more evolved she was."

Los Angeles Times Articles