In the early 2000s the American artist Richard Prince started his series of ‘Nurse Paintings’ based on the covers of pulp/romance fiction paperbacks from the 1960s that he collected. The mask that he always appends to the figures in the paintings (in this example, weirdly see-through) of course rarely appears in the original book covers, but serves the fetishising function of obscuring/drawing attention to the lips/face/eyes. The following somewhat ‘gushing’ description is from the auction catalogue description for this work:
‘…’Man-Crazy Nurse #2’ plays the role of the ultimate femme-fatale. Her full-blooded lust barely concealed by her primly buttoned and starched white uniform, she clutches a standard-issue hospital clipboard as if checking off the names of the men she has devoured. Casting a side-long glance, this libidinous nurse seems to have her next patient/victim in sight. Prince’s lushly expressive brushwork, which floods the canvas in shades of fleshy pink and blood-red, serves as both a come-on and a warning … In this body of work, Prince appropriated the covers of pulp romance novels from his collection of vintage books and transferred them onto canvas using an ink-jet printer, which he then layered with vigorous skeins of colour. He veils his nurses with surgical masks that both add an element of mysterious allure, and turn them into potentially menacing masked bandits … the nurse was the star of a pulp-fiction subgenre aimed at a female audience, written by female authors (or men using pseudonyms), thereby forming a virtual pop encyclopedia of feminine desire … Nurses served as popular heroines for pulp-fiction fetishisation, both because they were relatable working-class figures, and because they were always embroiled in dramatic life-and-death situations. The nurse, a surrogate for the reader, finds herself in an endless range of romantic scenarios, in suggestively titled books such as ‘Aloha Nurse’, ‘Nurse in Hollywood’, ‘Intimate Nurse’, and ‘Danger – Nurse at Work’. Popular since the 1940s, these medical romances reached a peak in the 1960s and 1970s, with their lure of sexual adventure. Their covers were calculated to titillate, enticing the reader through image and text with the lure with prurient escapism. The cover of a 1963 novel by Peggy Gaddis promised to reveal “The twisted passions and subtle revenge of a girl they called Man-Crazy Nurse.” As in his appropriated photographs of Marlboro men, or his painted renditions of off-color jokes, Prince simultaneously deconstructs and celebrates his lowbrow subjects … Prince’s fixation on the figure of the nurse is not only a result of his fondness for the pulpy underbelly of mainstream literature, but is also revealingly tied to his family background. As Prince explained in an interview, “I’m painting nurses. I like their hats. Their aprons. Their shoes. My mother was a nurse. My sister was a nurse. My grandmother and two cousins were nurses. I collect ‘nurse’ books. Paperbacks. You can’t miss them. They’re all over the airport. I like the words ‘nurse,’ ‘nurses,’ ‘nursing.’ I’m recovering” (Interview with R. Prince, “Like a Beautiful Scar on Your Head,” Modern Painters 15, no. 3, Autumn 2002). Such commentary suggests Freudian clichés in overdrive, as fetishism and Oedipal instincts collide in the image of the nurse.’
IMPORTANT NOTE: if you are unhappily forced to visit a hospital in the current crisis, you may be tempted to explore this topic further, but don’t be surprised if NHS staff have very little time to discuss these aspects of their attire.