30 July 2014

Masculin - Male nude in art from the 19th Century onwards - by Enrico Mercatali


Male nudity in modern and contemporary art

at Musée d'Orsay - Paris
(september - december 2013)

In the pictures next to the title: "Mercurio", by Pierre et Gilles in 2001, and a picture of Yves Saint Laurent by Sieff in 1971.
In the pictures of the exhibition above: sculptures of Arno Breker, an advocate of the Aryan ideal under the Nazi regime of the time, "La Vie active", 1939, in the Section "Heoroic nudes", and the "Fauno Barberini" (Anonymous), between 1799 and 1829, in the section "The classical ideal" (photo by E.Mercatali).
"Masculin" exhibition is divided into different sections, each following a general project:  "The classical ideal", "Heroic nudes", "Nuda veritas", "Au natural", "Inside pain", "Non-exhibited nudes" (male nude in American art), "Object of desire". 
Many detailed reviews appear in the catalogue: "Superman" by Guy Cogeval, "The great absence: male nude in literature" by Charles Dantzig, "The handyman" by Claude Arnaud. Moreover, an interview to Pierre et Gilles, whose works best represent the current approach to the topic: the androgynous male nudity proposed in commercials by the media. It's no coincidence that "Mercurio",  one of these very works, became promotional symbol and manifesto of the exhibition. Another work by the same author (Below, "Vive la France") was symbol of a smaller, similar exhibition in Wien last year. Unfortunately, the photo was considered scandalous by many and it soon disappeared from the bulletin boards and streets of the capital.  

In his review about literature and male nudity, Charles Danzig describes the difference between roles and genders (male and female nudity), highlighting that an equivalent of male nudes can be found also in visual modern and contemporary arts, as the exhibition shows. As he highlights, writers often had themselves portrayed naked as a symbol of their being laid bare by their own works, but also owing to a latent, extreme exhibitionism. 
In the three pictures above: Truman Capote, writer, New York, 1955 (detail) in a photo by Richard Avedon; Gabriele D'Annunzio on Francavilla al Mare beach in Italy around 1880, and Yukio Mishima, in a photo by Kishin Shioyama in 1069.  

Male nude was always present in art, but it was only in the last decades that an explicit, unmasked version appeared both in a real and metaphorical sense. Such process can be easily seen in the picture above the title "Mercurio" and that of Yves Saint Laurent, portrayed for a perfume commercial.

Jean Delville "The school of Plato" (detail), oil on canvas, 1898, size 260 x 605 cm, Musée d'Orsay, Paris.

Unless we consider the Classical Period, marked by athletic-heroic and mythological ideals, and its revivals throughout the centuries, the only permanent feature in nude art was that of female nudity, always successful in both courts and private houses. Male nudity was never overused, but it gradually became an object to be put on display. The time has come to make it an object of pure art, aimed at nothing but aesthetic pleasure. 

These 3 images, belonging to different moments of history, show the typical, natural posture of a male body, representing both a state of rest and of thoughtful focus. The figure represented above, the oldest one, 1836, chosen by Hippolyte Flandrin for the study of a young, well-shaped body according to the academic model of the time ("Young man sitting in front of the sea, study"), was used as a model by Wilhelm von Gloeden in 1913 for his "Caino, Taormina", representing the relationship between nude male and nature. In 1981 Robert Mappelthorpe, known for the extreme precision and sharpness of his black and white pictures, portrayed natural subjects such as flowers and human bodies, especially black men as in this "Ajitto". Owing to his personal and artistic sensibility he prefers realistic subjects, especially when anatomic and erotic details make the scene. This is not the main topic of the exhibition, in fact only a few works by Mappelthorpe are shown; it is rather focused on the idea that eroticism, sometimes even close to pornography, has become of central importance both in the marketing field, and as expression of a general social acknowledgment of freedom and rights by the gay parts of the population.  

Masculin is a big, rich exhibition of sculptural, pictorial and photographic works, representing the male nude. It is the first of this kind in western museums (while eastern art has been representing orgasm for hundreds of years) if it weren't for another similar, much smaller one at Leopold museum in Wien last year. Held and organized by Museé d'Orsay in Paris,  the exhibition analyses not only aesthetic and artistic aspects, but also those relating society and mores, if not scandal itself. As the press reports, the works are proposed to a mature public (many visitors, even the little ones accompanied by parents, make comments on any detail with no embarrassment at all. Some time ago this would have been unthinkable). What causes embarrassment is not the art of the 19 Century but the more recent one, which widely discusses the male sex and the way it can be shown with artistic, aesthetic aims. 

Georger Paul Leroux, "Bathers of the Tibes", 1909

The various sections of the exhibition, dealing with different aspects of the artistic male nude, take the classical criteria of perfection, measure, symbolism and sensuality for granted. The exhibition is rather focused on the idea that the modern male essence of art, unlike its much more common female counterpart, has a crucial erotic component. The male behavioral patterns concerning the sphere of sexuality, both innate and induced, both latent and exaggerated, are drawn by the author upon reality, studied and represented in a social and interpersonal context, becoming a vehicle of art.

Many paintings show collective male nudes in the context of bath, which was a recurring subject during the 20th Century. Some examples: "Bathers" by Cezanne in 1890, "Bathers" by Edvard Munch in 1915, "Boys at the bath" by Ludvig Von Hofmann in 1908.  

The homosexual component of the exhibition can be found in every section, especially in "Object of desire". The projects are drawn upon the Freudian idea of sublimation artistically conveyed, revealing the deviation arising during childhood of an original sexual indeterminateness, corresponding to the original bisexuality.

"Autoportrait agenouillé" by Egon Schiele, 1910, and "Figure allongée" by Francis Bacon, 1969. Both date back to the 20th Century and appear in the section "Inside Pain", despite a different chronology and style. Their common element is nudity as an extreme form of loneliness and introspective pain, suffered by both of the artists during their life. The naked body symbolizes a deprivation of everything, including affection, which is what causes the condition of pain.  

Freud had "borrowed" the Platonic androgynous myth rediscovered by symbolism, well represented in the big painting by Jean Delville "The school of Plato", above in detail, (oil on canvas, 1898, size 260x605 cm, Musée d'Orsay, Paris), where male bodies are completely deprived of their masculine features, substituted by effeminate movements and traits.

The two works above represent the same subject, an embrace between 2 men. The first is "La Mort d'Hyacinthe" by Jean Broc in 1901, the second is "David et Jonathan (Jean Yves et Moussa)" by Pierre et Gilles, 2005. They belong to the "Object of desire" section of the exhibition. They were realized more than 200 years apart. Compared to other works, more representative or beautiful, they are highly iconic and destined to leave their mark in the near future. The bodies are clearly separated from the imaginary environment in the background. Their nudities highlight a physical attachment, a loving bond. Their homosexual union has no ethnic limits and becomes a postcard-like object. 

The female body has always been the object of attention in literature (from legends to novels of the 19th Centry onwards), in theatre, poetry, music and prose. Every part of the female body is well described, from feet to knees, from belly to breast, from shoulders to cheeks. Every detail has become object of songs, verses, stories and plays, with aims that range from love to eros to maternity. The male body played a completely different role in the course of history.

This work (a painted photograph) by Pierre et Gilles, 2006, entitled "Vive la France (Serge, Moussa et Robert)", represents a front view of 3 football players of different ethnicity, completely naked if it weren't for socks and football shoes. It was selected as image-manifesto for last year's exhibition in Wien, but it was harshly criticized by citizens shortly after the opening of the event. 

The male body has inspired ideals of strength and will, patriotism and collective sacrifice, fighting instinct, heroism, invincibility, and also every kind of wantonness when it was used as a pure exercise of pornography. In this last case, differences between genders become particularly highlighted. 

The two works above and below appear in the "Object of desire" section: "Shower after the battle" by Alexandre Deinaka, 1944 (oil on canvas), "Bath of sun" by David Hokney, 1966 (acrylic on canvas), "The bath" (detail) by Paul Cadmus, 1951, and "Le Sommeil, illustration pour Querelle de Brest de Gean Genet" by Jean Cocteau, 1946-47 (pencil drawing on paper). Even though the authors have different origins (Soviet Union, Great Britain, United States and France) they share similar stylistic features. All of them described the gay universe to which they were naturally attracted, with the only exception of Alexandre Deinaka, compelled by political reasons to hide the homosexual side of his works. For the rest, the male nude always becomes a vehicle of erotic experiences between men.

It's no coincidence that a small painting by Orlan (1989-2012) is also exhibited, showing the male sex right in the face of the public, as Jean Courbet did with the female sex in his painting "L'origine du monde", 1866, accusatorily entitled  "L'origine de la guerre". 

Only during the last years have differences between the nudes of both sexes diminished, in the works by Pierre et Gilles for instance, which allude to the finally accepted gay universe and mix genders and behaviors in a less sexist way. The public, more mature in moral terms and less distracted by superficiality, is offered a tolerant view of uninhibited nudity, and also an osmotic view of the expressive roles of genders, which leads to an investigation of the private sphere rather than a symbolic representation of civil topics.  

Richard Avedon "Andy Warhol and some members of the Factory, 30/10/1969" 
(detail), 1969

Laying bare men instead of women means inclining them towards the tasks they are assigned by modern society, compared to those assigned by ancient myths and by the middle class before the computer revolution, which weakened social differences between genders. If this is not yet seen in society, customs and traditions, it is well present in art, as the Parisian exhibition shows. Once again, art anticipates and digs a groove for seeds to be placed.

Enrico Mercatali
Paris, october 2013
(translated from italian by Penelope Mirotti, july 2014)

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