The holidays are not particularly sexy times. Traditionally, they're filled with latkes and fruitcake, eggnog and mince pie. Any time and energy you might have for sensual indulgence are expended in eating; everyone falls into bed a tipsy, bloated wreck; and morning sex becomes just a quickie as people pull on their boots to trek from store to store in search of that one last, perfect gift. So why not enliven your flagging libido, finish off your shopping with a few clicks of the mouse and rile your loved ones into an erotic frenzy by means of one of the many racy gift books available this season? Following are some sexy art books that will heat up the cold winter days for your lover, your dominatrix, your teenage cousin -- even your grandma.
"Forbidden Erotica: The Rotenberg Collection" is the ideal gift for both the porn fiend and the bibliophile. The black-and-white pictures -- gelatin silver prints, albumen prints, postcards, lithographs and sepia-tone photographs -- date from the 1870s to the 1940s, and are as lewd as anything being done today. Though homosexual images are relatively infrequent, the pictures are without exception produced by men, for men: French maid outfits, an abundance of fellatio, water sports, lots of boots and knee-high stockings -- with everyone in the most acrobatic of positions. In one series of pictures, a man places his cock on a dinner plate full of potatoes and other vegetables, while his female companion, wielding a large steak knife, threatens to eat his member like a sausage. In another, a woman putts a golf ball that is resting on a man's penis. The pictures come from the archives of Mark Rotenberg, who started his collection when he found a dumpster full of a dead neighbor's girlie magazines. The book is thrilling, weird and full of homely and beautiful bodies alike.
The hunky boys of the big and little screens -- both timeless legends and pinups destined for obscurity -- are the subject of the most unabashed and campy photo book of the season: "Shirtless: The Hollywood Male Physique." Rock Hudson in the bathtub, Ryan O'Neal eating Kentucky Fried Chicken in a bathing suit, Rudolph Valentino on the beach (he has an enormous package). What's especially great about "Shirtless" in comparison with photo books largely populated by models is that we already have relationships with these men; we've seen them in countless movie and TV roles, and now we get to see them nearly naked. There's the thrill of watching the iconic get undressed, plus a nostalgic and comical element: Marlon Brando, John Travolta and Matt Dillon look amazing, but we all know they've gone to seed. Some of these guys are hairy, normal-looking or soft around the middle (Ronald Reagan, Chuck Norris and Erik Estrada, especially), while others are surprisingly built (like Michael Landon, Christian Bale and Steve Guttenberg). "Today, in a time when perfect male bodies are almost commonplace," writes the author, "I felt it was important to focus on the men who paved the way for this bounty." The boy-crazy teenagers and the gay cinemagoers on your list will love this book. And before you wrap it, you can get a glimpse up Jude Law's shorts.
In "Body Knots" Howard Schatz, who claims on the jacket copy to be the "world's preeminent photographer of the human body," does for the human form what "Play With Your Food" did for the potato. Photographs of nude dancers twisted into complicated corporeal tangles, then colored and otherwise altered with computer technology, make the human body seem more like a bulbous fruit than a sexual object. Yet the book is oddly sexy, partly because of the anonymity of the models (their faces don't show), and partly because their naked bodies are bonded in orgiastic poses. Bottoms swell like luscious pears, hands look like spiny leaves, spines arc like the curve of a banana. This is erotica for graphic designers, Silicon Valley millionaires and fruit lovers of all persuasions. "Nude Body Nude," another collection by Schatz, isn't worth its $75 price tag. Glamorous, perfectly formed and well-oiled bodies in provocative (but not sexually explicit) poses make the nude seem like a dead art form: The book is a collection of sleek studio shots, nothing more.
"Picturing the Modern Amazon" is designed to accompany a museum exhibition of the same title that was at New York's New Museum of Contemporary Art last year. It is the most scholarly title on this list, but it provides naked, hypermuscular photographs and drawings that (although clearly intended to edify young girls and feminist theorists) will arouse people who like being engulfed and overpowered by enormous women -- and titillate nearly everyone else. The pictures range from historical photographs of circus strongwomen to portraits of scantily clad bodybuilders by artists like Andres Serrano (Yolanda Hughes in black-leather bondage wear); Walter Gutman (Claudia Wilbourn, one of the few builders without obvious breast implants, flexing in the nude) and Renée Cox (Heather Foster, toting a gun and wearing thigh-high boots). Even better is the comic-book art: Wonder Woman with her golden lasso and various superheroines from more outré publications, such as an image from "Atomic Age Amazon" that features a gigantic woman named Jodi shooting bullets out of her phenomenally large breasts.
The Kinsey Institute for Research on Sex, Gender and Reproduction spent years collecting photographs that document the sexual practices of ordinary people. "Peek: Photographs From the Kinsey Institute" displays amateur snapshots and professional images dating from the 1880s to the 1990s. Some of the lusty porn shots that dominate the Rotenberg Collection can be found here, but the real pleasure is in the comical and exhibitionistic sensuality of ordinary people. A couple shoots arrows on a snow-covered hill, naked except for heavy black boots. A dominatrix in a black mask and lace-up thigh-high boots whips a small toy dog into obedience. A bespectacled woman turns hamburgers on a barbecue in the nude. This is the erotica of everyday life, arousing and odd.
The photographs in "Nude Sculpture: 5,000 Years" are discreetly erotic. The book is simultaneously a homage to the beauty of the human body and a testimony to the nearly miraculous ability of sculptors to render softness out of stone. It's a collaboration between photographer David Finn and artists like Rodin, Bernini, Canova, Dupré and Michelangelo, and the pleasure is in the curves of the highly muscled male bodies and the smoothly arching female ones. Christ hangs on the cross, and there are closeups of several penises -- those of Hercules, Perseus, Bacchus, Adam and someone who raped the Sabine women. The genitalia of myth, history and legend, suitable for your grandma's coffee table.
"Emerging Bodies: Nudes From the Polaroid Collections" will excite the art lovers and amateur photographers on your list, though it's not much of a turn-on. Pictures made on instant film by artists like Gabriele Basilico, Chuck Close and Robert Mapplethorpe, as well as a number of lesser-known photographers, prove genuinely thought-provoking and very often lovely.
Michael Spano's black-and-whites of women whose bodies are patterned with light and Basilico's pictures of naked bottoms scored by marks from chair seats explore the relationship of the body to its environment. And of course, Polaroid film is ideal for anyone inclined to snap his own dirty pictures. Rather than face prying clerks at the local 24-hour photo stop, the Polaroid photographer gets instant results and complete privacy. Consider "Emerging Bodies" as inspiration for a little homemade erotica.
On the other hand, Petter Hegre's "My Wife" is a valentine. Over the past few years, he took innumerable snapshots of his petite, blond (and always fully shaved) wife, Svanborg. She is vivacious and silly, not always beautiful, perpetually erotic. In the kitchen, she struggles into a lycra bodysuit. On the porch, she sunbathes nude next to a kiddie pool. Sometimes she sleeps with other women, sometimes with a man who appears to be Hegre himself.
The pictures are scarily intimate: Svanborg is photographed with a tampon string hanging between her legs, sitting on the toilet while doubled over with stomach cramps, stretched across the bed with a vibrator. "My Wife" feels like a genuine document of a hot-blooded romance in which the woman is neither idealized nor degraded: she simply is.