Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Evil in Fin-de-Siècle Culture

Bram Dijkstra

This encyclopedic study of images of the femme fatale in academic painting from the mid-19th to the early 20th century is as breathtaking in its sensual splendor as it is nauseating in its display of a “veritable iconography of misogyny,” the visual component of what the author calls “the morass of the 19th century’s assault on women.” Sticking to primary sources in contemporary exhibition catalogs, periodicals, and books and tracts by philosophers, pathologists and scientists, the author shows how artists and intellectuals pooled their dark fantasies of women—which were reflective and extensions of those of the public at large—to invent these dangerous creatures.
As the position of women evolved along with their nascent efforts to liberate themselves, the counter-efforts—to define, explain and control them—also changed and evolved. Here we have a wealth of glowing Ophelias; slumbering armies of exhausted onanists; voluptuous slaves; spaced-out mirror-gazers; Lolitas and transcendent ephebes; predatory female flowers single-mindedly seeking to drain man of “that great clot of seminal fluid”—his brain; bestial vampires capable of the most atrocious crimes; and more. The images and writings reproduced here are so lush in their testimony to human lust, fear, disgust and striving for sublimity it is hard to regard these archival materials with a furrowed brow, especially since, by dissecting the oppressive forces that gave rise to them, Dijkstra has helped to defuse their destructive power. The prevalence of this repertoire of images of women in the popular media today is testimony to their tenacity and insidiousness. MH

Publisher: Knopf
Hardback: 480 pages