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Reclining Nude is a straightforward book collecting paintings of reclining nudes from the sixteenth century to the present. Most painters are represented just once, although a few of the most important have two or more of their works reproduced. Accompanying each picture is the name of the artist, and at the end of the book is a list of all the paintings included, with the title of the work, its date, the format of the painting, its size and the museum or collection that owns the work. The quality of the reproduction is about average for mass-produced art books. There is a short introduction, but no text accompanying the images to explain them. The paintings are organized very roughly in chronological order, but there are many sudden leaps backwards and forwards within this organization, and there is no explanation for the departures from strict chronology.
European artists in the sixteenth century chose themes from the Bible or ancient myth – Eve, nymphs, Venus – against a pastoral background. Most have their eyes closed or averted, although Titian is a notable exception, with his Venus looking the viewer straight in the eye. It's striking how standards of beauty have changed so much in the last few hundred years: these women have fairly small breasts, rounded bellies, and large thighs. The first notably modern painting in the collection is Manet's Olympia, with the model boldly staring at the viewer, her figure strikingly attractive by today's standards, and her face clearly that of a real person. In the context of the other pictures from the nineteenth century, it is easy to see why it was considered shocking at the time.
Once one reaches the late nineteenth century, however, we see rapid evolution in the form of the painting. The work of Degas, Renoir and Cézanne are revolutionary, introducing whole new aesthetic standards, and Bonnard's paintings of his wife are frankly erotic. It is when the book arrives at the twentieth century that it comes into its own, because it includes less familiar works that are extremely interesting. I had not previously been familiar with the impressionist work of Frederick Carl Friseke, the bold playfulness of Suzanne Valadon, or the elegant simplicity of Felix Vallotton, for example. Along with the well-known work of Gauguin, Schiele, and Modigliani, we find excellent pieces by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Moise Kisling and Tamara de Lempicka. Some artists whose work seems only tangential to the tradition are included, such as Chagall and Magritte. Several pages are rightly devoted to Picasso and Lucien Freud, and the book surprisingly ends with four works by Tom Wesselmann.
Although Reclining Nude is a coffee table book with all the limitations that come with the form, it is still a provocative collection of images that will appeal to people who enjoy the history of western art.
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© 2003 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.
Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island, and editor of Metapsychology Online Review. His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.