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SUNDAY BRUNCH

Bookshelf

Art and Photography

January 04, 1998|CATHY CURTIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Calling all female sybarites: Imagine spending your days taking luxurious baths and lounging on cashmere-covered divans; indulging in nectar, sweets and tobacco; and gossiping with a group of attractive and cultured women of many races. Such was the pampered life of the Turkish harem for more than 400 years.

With photographs of jewel-encrusted luxury objects and lavish interiors, "Secrets of the Harem" (The Vendome Press, $39.50, 192 pages) evokes a sensual realm that long intrigued Western visitors. Even better are the reproductions of fleshy, languorous paintings, from "The Turkish Bath"--a veritable horde of nude lovelies from the brush of 82-year-old Ingres--to an intimate view, by obscure French painter Jules Migonney, of a sturdy, cocoa-skinned woman lying on her back while a slave in striped trousers paints her toenails.

While the text, by guidebook writer Carla Coco, is rather repetitive, it is studded with intriguing bits of information. The slaves who tended to the sultry odalisques were freed after nine years and could marry and purchase homes and land with savings. Beauty treatments could be iffy: Poor Lady Wortley Montagu, an 18th century English traveler, obtained some priceless balm of Mecca only to discover that it made her face swell.

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A generation before the hippie era, the eccentric British painter Stanley Spencer envisioned a world in which love and sexual satisfaction were literal reflections of God's grace. Spending nearly all his life in the village of Cookham, 30 miles west of London, he painted its townsfolk as the ecstatic protagonists of biblical scenes and allegories, and found in the placid landscape a burning bush intensity.

Like so many other visionaries, however, Spencer had a troubled personal life. His best-known works are pitiless nude images of himself and his adored but unloving second wife, Patricia Preece, a lesbian who retained her female companion after the marriage. Flesh becomes as raw and cold as a piece of meat in these paintings, one of which actually includes a leg of lamb the couple was about to cook for supper.

In "Stanley Spencer: An English Vision" (Yale University Press, $45, 208 pages), cultural historian Fiona McCarthy deftly places the artist's work in the context of his life and loves. The paintings, splendidly reproduced in the book, are part of an exhibition at the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden; bypassing Southern California, the show will open in San Francisco in June.

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Others journeyed to Mexico in search of picturesque rural scenes, but photographer Helen Levitt, known for her subtle images of poor children in New York, chose to concentrate on the street life of Mexico City. In 1941, the place was still much like a small town, but with increasing numbers of country folk seeking work at its factories.

With an absorbing essay (in English and Spanish) by art historian James Oles, "Helen Levitt: Mexico City" (W.W. Norton & Co., $35, 140 pages) unfolds as a stark but undogmatic view of poverty, stoicism and odd moments of joy. Levitt used a right-angle viewfinder on her Leica as a covert means of capturing scenes that sometimes resemble moments from "Los Olvidados," Luis Bunuel's film from 1950 of Mexican slum life.

A boy in overalls holding a catcher's mitt stands as if transfixed next to the railroad tracks. A fedora salesman surrealistically balances a stack of his wares on his head. A bony dog tensely watches an old woman dump out the trash. Steered by the firm hand of his autocratic-looking middle-class father, a child picks his nose. A girl in a torn and dirty dress smiles over a dead rabbit. Levitt provides no titles; the viewer is free to provide the script.

Cathy Curtis reviews art and photography books every four weeks. Next week: Rochelle O'Gorman Flynn on audio books.

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