“Why had there never been an exhibition dedicated to the male nude until the Nackte Manner at the Leopold Museum in Vienna last year?” speculates the opening panel for a new exhibition, Masculin/Masculin—a sweeping history of male nudity in art—which opens at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris this week.
Why indeed. Female nudity is so omnipresent in art—and seemingly in every other media context—that, as a society, we’re inured to a woman showing off her body in its entirety. But the male nude, by contrast, has a tendency to go raunchy fast. (An art historian friend was quick to rechristen this exhibit Dicks, Dicks, Dicks.) The Musée d’Orsay seemed to sense this, and thus was swift to state, as a counteroffensive, that: “We must distinguish above all between nudity and the nude: a body simply without clothes, that causes embarrassment with its lack of modesty, is different from the radiant vision of a body restructured and idealized by the artist.”
With this directive in mind, the Masculin/Masculin exhibit showcases more than two centuries’ worth of depictions of male nudes, subcontracting the topic into different thematic strata related to religion, mythology, athleticism, homosexuality, and shifting notions of manliness. Without adhering too strictly to chronology, it includes artists as diverse as Jacques-Louis David, Gustave Moreau, David Hockney, Edvard Munch, Francis Bacon, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Ron Mueck.
The masculine body was presented with ease and regularity in the 18th century. This era, artistically speaking, harped on Greco-Roman mythology, with masculinity steeped in classical heroism. Danish painter Nicolai Abilgaard is a prime example: his 1775 rendering of The Wounded Philoctetes, all rippling shoulders and hunks of thigh, is—even injured!—a display of capital-M Masculinity. Later in the exhibit, contemporary painter Kehinde Wiley winks at this type self-mythologized heritage in his 2008 Study for the Death of Abel, in which a recumbent male is stretched out solemnly before a peacock-festooned background.
The nude of the 19th century was often a tool for anatomical study: an intellectualized and idealized approach to physiognomy. A series of photographs by Louis Igout and Hermann Heid capture a male model in arabesques, posing in 16 different ways to showcase the body from all angles. The examined male form was seen not just as a depiction of masculinity but of “mankind”—and was meant to be representative of the whole species. Such a supposition is, of course, hugely exclusive—and certainly underlines the heritage problem of not considering women deserving of their own representation. (This minefield, about what is considered “appropriate representation” for women versus for men, is sadly not addressed in much depth.)
Though images of pure strapping musculature prevail, the sensuality of the male form is dealt with in a more wide-ranging fashion in the 20th century. Egon Schiele, doing the selfie of his time, used his own lithe frame as inspiration for a 1910 series of colorful, finely sketched self-portraits. Jeanloup Sieff photographed a young and bespectacled Yves Saint Laurent, consciously stylizing his trim silhouette in a softly spotlit halo. Picasso’s blush-hued 1906 painting, The Adolescents, and Hippolyte Flandrin’s Young Male Nude Seated Beside the Sea (1836) portray the allure of being boyish rather than Hulk-ish. The black and white triptych by Richard Avedon, Andy Warhol and Members of The Factory, New York, October 30, 1969, takes a much more deadpan look at male nudity, with a central cluster of nudes flanked on either side by clothed figures, all staring dispassionately at the camera. It’s somehow one of the most matter-of-fact images, even as it's also incredibly stylized.
Then there are the confrontational approaches. Lucian Freud’s 1992 oil painting, Parts of Leigh Bowery, is a close study in male genitalia, as is Orlan’s The Origin of War (a cocksure riff on Gustave Courbet’s 1886 painting The Origin of the World, which intimately frames a woman’s vagina). Jean Cocteau’s series of erotic drawings, in finely sketched lines, depict come-hither sailors and gay men in action. Some of the most contemporary works included are a David LaChapelle photo of Eminem, About to Blow, featuring the rapper naked and holding a firework over his crotch, or Pierre Commoy and Gilles Blanchard’s Vive la France, featuring three men of different races standing in a stadium, wearing only socks and cleats in, respectively, blue, white, and red. Using the maximum of kitsch, the masculinity of LaChapelle and Pierre et Gilles is tongue in cheek: not aggressive, but antagonistic. Goading with flat colors and garish taste, it’s arguable whether such work is actually provocative beyond simply exploiting and toying with gender norms.
There are very few female artists included in the mix, given that men were not just the primary subjects in art but the primary makers of it until rather recently. However, there is an exceptional 1918 nude portrait photographed by Imogen Cunningham of her husband, Roy Partridge. Transgressive for its time, it's a poetic pastoral composition of her unclothed spouse, crouching before a pond in which his image is reflected. And Louise Bourgeois, a provocateur as ever in the discourse about gender roles, is included by way of her Arch of Hysteria statue: a headless bronze body, acrobatically curved. Hysteria was a pathology ascribed to women, and it is deliciously clever to see this psychological state, foisted so dismissively onto women, ascribed to a man instead.
“Masculin/Masculin: The Nude Man in Art From 1800 to the Present Day” is open from September 24 to January 2 at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.