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Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin-de-Siecle Culture (Oxford Paperbacks) Paperback – 1 Sep 1988


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Product details

  • Paperback: 470 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press; New Ed edition (1 Sep 1988)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0195056523
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195056525
  • Product Dimensions: 25.4 x 2.3 x 17.9 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 337,820 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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About the Author

Professor of Comparative Literature at Univ. of California, San Diego.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

6 of 8 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on 25 April 1998
Format: Paperback
Dijkstra's book is a wonderful dissection of the sexual subtexts of late-Victorian art, a genre packed with very telling and, by our standards, near-pornographic images under the guise of religious or mythological subjects. Analysing art that was designed to titillate - and frankly, still does - is a difficult brief. But in my view, Dijkstra successfully avoids a "Look how disgusting this is!" tone, and provides an insight into the many female stereotypes in Victorian art: temptresses, vampires, victims, invalids, degenerates, and more. My one major criticism is that the text too blatantly pushes Dijkstra's interpretations of the paintings ("Was this woman [looking at a goldfish bowl] ... seeing something more than just the goldfish swiming aimlessly in a circle? ... Wasn't she also a goldfish herself, and wasn't her environment, to a large extent, the goldfish bowl of her own "useless existence"? No wonder, then ... her melancholy expression"). In my view, this polemic tone weakens Dijkstra's point. The pictures, which are well supported by quotes from contemporary fiction and other sources, speak perfectly well about the weirdness of the late-Victorian male psyche.
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14 of 19 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on 15 Jun 1999
Format: Hardcover
This book reproduces hundreds of the most beautiful, eccentric, and unique paintings and sculptures ever made, complete with a marvelously entertaining commentary that "reveals" the sinister, patriarchial threat of each.
The greatest surprise is the obscurity yet quality of these works--you won't see them reproduced in any other art book, yet they are too entertaining and (sometimes) just plain daffy to deserve oblivion. Since subject matter is all that interests Mr.Dijkstra, they are unfortunately all in black and white, but the bold expressiveness of the compositions makes this only a minor flaw.
Almost as rich as this aesthetic feast is Mr. Dijkstra's commentary. Are you amused by 19th Century Puritanical screeds, right-wing condemnation of the Arts, or the Nazis' blather about "degenerate art"? If so, this scholar's views will be a revelation: a dour, fanatical, left-wing perspective! He has great insights into 19th Century culture, psychology, and "sexual politics," and these increase tenfold your enjoyment of the art.
But I was most delighted by his hilarious extremism, his intolerance for anything that won't fit within a microscopic window of "political correctness." The self-righteousness, the delusions (he describes a bucolic scene of frolicking cherubs as a harbinger of the Holocaust) and the choking fury he expends at long-dead paupers are a once-in-a-lifetime thrill. Thank you, Mr. Dijkstra! Beyond a doubt, the most memorable art critique I've ever read.
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6 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Paul Woodfine on 26 Dec 2009
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I read this about ten years ago and was impressed first by the depth of research needed to find so many second-rate Victorian paintings and second by the inexhaustible feminist interpretation. Published in 1985, and so prepared between 1980 - 1984, Djikstra was firmly under the spell of extreme academic feminism and it shows. Re-reading it now, I wish Dijkstra had revised it for a post-feminist age, because there are so many real questions about this stuff. Who bought these paintings and for how much? Who sold them? Where in the buyer's house did they hang, if they hung in domestic houses at all? What careers did these artists have? What was their standing in society and the profession of painting? Who were the models? What are the parallels between the art market then and now?

The book isn't just about paintings. Dijkstra discusses a large number of books and tracts, all of them pseudo-scientific codswallop, about women. Again, the really interesting questions are about parallels with our own times: there's just as much tosh talked about men and women now as before (Venus and Mars, anyone?). How significant was all that Victorian twaddle really? Is there any evidence that it affected the thinking of Parliamentarians or that the Suffragettes took up arms against it?

Then there is the central question: aren't all these paintings just Victorian soft-core pornography, the late nineteenth-century version of the Page Three girl? Dijkstra never addresses this question, partly because in the 1980's porn didn't have the academic visibility it does today, and partly because if the answer is "yes", the social and political significance he alleges for these paintings evaporates like the proverbial summer dew.
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0 of 6 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on 23 Sep 1997
Format: Paperback
If you are familiar with Max Nordau's -Degeneration-, or Mario Praz's -The Romantic Agony-, this book belongs on the same shelf with them. Only this time, it is 90's political correctness & feminism that supply the moralizing. Preaching makes the pictures more interesting.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: 14 reviews
32 of 39 people found the following review helpful
Beautiful, Fascinating, and Hilarious 15 Jun 1999
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
This book reproduces hundreds of the most beautiful, eccentric, and unique paintings and sculptures ever made, complete with a marvelously entertaining commentary that "reveals" the sinister, patriarchial threat of each.
The greatest surprise is the obscurity yet quality of these works--you won't see them reproduced in any other art book, yet they are too entertaining and (sometimes) just plain daffy to deserve oblivion. Since subject matter is all that interests Mr.Dijkstra, they are unfortunately all in black and white, but the bold expressiveness of the compositions makes this only a minor flaw.
Almost as rich as this aesthetic feast is Mr. Dijkstra's commentary. Are you amused by 19th Century Puritanical screeds, right-wing condemnation of the Arts, or the Nazis' blather about "degenerate art"? If so, this scholar's views will be a revelation: a dour, fanatical, left-wing perspective! He has great insights into 19th Century culture, psychology, and "sexual politics," and these increase tenfold your enjoyment of the art.
But I was most delighted by his hilarious extremism, his intolerance for anything that won't fit within a microscopic window of "political correctness." The self-righteousness, the delusions (he describes a bucolic scene of frolicking cherubs as a harbinger of the Holocaust) and the choking fury he expends at long-dead paupers are a once-in-a-lifetime thrill. Thank you, Mr. Dijkstra! Beyond a doubt, the most memorable art critique I've ever read.
18 of 21 people found the following review helpful
Late-Victorian male psyche exposed 25 April 1998
By Ray Girvan (ray.girvan@zetnet.co.uk) - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
Dijkstra's book is a wonderful dissection of the sexual subtexts of late-Victorian art, a genre packed with very telling and, by our standards, near-pornographic images under the guise of religious or mythological subjects. Analysing art that was designed to titillate - and frankly, still does - is a difficult brief. But in my view, Dijkstra successfully avoids a "Look how disgusting this is!" tone, and provides an insight into the many female stereotypes in Victorian art: temptresses, vampires, victims, invalids, degenerates, and more. My one major criticism is that the text too blatantly pushes Dijkstra's interpretations of the paintings ("Was this woman [looking at a goldfish bowl] ... seeing something more than just the goldfish swiming aimlessly in a circle? ... Wasn't she also a goldfish herself, and wasn't her environment, to a large extent, the goldfish bowl of her own "useless existence"? No wonder, then ... her melancholy expression"). In my view, this polemic tone weakens Dijkstra's point. The pictures, which are well supported by quotes from contemporary fiction and other sources, speak perfectly well about the weirdness of the late-Victorian male psyche.
18 of 24 people found the following review helpful
A worthy heir to Max Nordau and Mario Praz 15 Dec 2000
By S. Gustafson - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
If you have read Nordau's -Degeneration-, you will find that the most appealing part of that tome to the present day reader will be the fact that it serves as admirable Baedeker to the highlights of late 19th century (mostly French) literature. It does so in the form of a moralistic tract, founded in the public-healthism of Nordau's era, and specifically Cesare Lombroso's attempt to create a "science" of what might be best termed as forensic phrenology. [Lombroso maintained that criminals displayed hereditary "atavistic" traits, and that therefore by looking for facial features he deemed "atavistic," criminal tendencies could be weeded out of the population. Nordau then applied Lombroso's criteria to identify many literary titans as atavistic moral degenerates.]

More people may be familiar with Mario Praz's -The Romantic Agony-, again a tract tinged with moral hostility against the stasis and cruelty of "decadence," that once again serves as a lovely field guide to Symbolist and late Romantic poetry. Praz, perhaps fortunately for his present reputation, sticks with non-falsifiable and purely artistic criticisms.

The point here is that Nordau's and Praz's books in fact add relish and anticipation to the literary works they describe despite their moralistic thunders against them. It's applying reverse psychology to the Paglia/Spenser effect --- for Camille Paglia's -Sexual Personae-, whatever other merits or demerits it may have, has won more readers for Spenser's -Faerie Queene- these past several years than the poem probably had over the past century.

-Idols of Perversity- purports to analyze images from late 19th century art in the light of feminist doctrine, with an eye to the (rather obvious) thesis that these figures represent male sexual fantasies, often misogynistic, and not flesh and blood women. Unlike most other tracts of cultural criticism that start from the moral assumptions of identity politics, Dijkstra's at least has the merit of actually persuading its readers that the hypothesis it wishes to develop is true.

On the other hand, the moralizing tone of the work gives it a place on the same shelf as Nordau and Praz; more so because the book is of necessity handsomely illustrated with dozens of interesting fantasy paintings, many by largely forgotten artists --- the fact, of course, that first attracted my attention to it in the first place. If you have any interest in these pictures at all, -Idols- is a handy reference guide, and Dijkstra's text serves the ironic purpose of making the pictures seem that much more wickedly fun, just as his distinguished predecessors do.
26 of 36 people found the following review helpful
Pretty pictures, silly words 8 Sep 2005
By Prelati - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
As a few of the other reviewers have observed, this is a visual treat served up by a crusading cretin. Well, he's obviously not a cretin, but after the scattergun insults he's hurled at so many of his subjects, it seems only right to answer for these unjustly damned dead folk in kind. Sorry, but the author of this hasn't earnt the right to start patronising past masters, at least certainly not judging by this.

This is feminism as conspiracy theory, the portrayal of culture as sex war, and it's joyless nonsense. The imagery in question is often exotic and edgy - but that's what interesting art does. If Dijkstra understood the art he castigates so energetically - chiefly Decadence - then he might begin to see the argument that perhaps beauty and pleasure are legitimate ends in their own right. Which is surely better than this ideological axe-grinding.

I'm afraid I have to disagree with those who praise the quality of the research in 'Idols of Perversity'. The author leans heavily on a couple of slender sources which are clearly pretty radical for their day as if they show the misogynist character of an entire era. We could use the SCUM Manifesto to portray all women as homicidal loons. But most of us are a little more grown up than that and just laugh at it, as I did with this. Women portrayed powerfully are 'demonised', women not portrayed powerfully are being repressed. Apparently. If any of his subjects fail to provide visuals or commentary to support his screed, Bram happily 'knows' what they were thinking anyhow.

I reluctantly recommend this. Five stars for the lavish - and frequently rare - imagery. One for the politically-correct propagandising - an average of three with one on top for giggles. If you enjoy Symbolist or Decadent art, do buy it, but also look out for the out-of-print 'Dreamers of Decadence' which covers the same area and with more appreciation and less sanctimonious baggage.
6 of 9 people found the following review helpful
An amusing compendium of pictures the author would condemn 23 Sep 1997
By gustavus@iglou.com - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
If you are familiar with Max Nordau's -Degeneration-, or Mario Praz's -The Romantic Agony-, this book belongs on the same shelf with them. Only this time, it is 90's political correctness & feminism that supply the moralizing. Preaching makes the pictures more interesting.
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