Masculine/ Masculine?

When we hear ‘nude’, for most of us the image of a female body would immediately spring to mind.  One of Titian’s fleshy, languorous beauties perhaps, or self-possessed Olympia and her hostile black cat. This is unsurprising, considering the proliferation of female nudes dominating art in the recent centuries.  Before the 19th century, however, the male nude was considered much more important to artists.  The male body was thought more attractive and the more important of the human forms. So much so that looking at many works from the Italian Renaissance, you would be forgiven for seeing men with a couple of breasts stuck on for fun, rather than a female body.

Michelangelo, Night, detail of the tomb of Julius de Medici, 1525-1527. Marble, length: 194 cm.  Medici Chapel, San Lorenzo, Florence.
Michelangelo, Night, detail of the tomb of Julius de Medici, 1525-1527. Marble, length: 194 cm. Medici Chapel, San Lorenzo, Florence.

But this didn’t just work one way. Androgyny was the look of the day, and this applied to men, too. Leonardo da Vinci, amongst others, portrayed very effeminate men- hence Dan Brown’s whole John-the-Baptist-is-actually-Mary-Magdalene theory offered up in The Da Vinci Code.

Leonardo da Vinci, St John the Baptist, 1513-1515. Oil on canvas, 69 x 57 cm. Musée du Louvre, Paris.
Leonardo da Vinci, St John the Baptist, 1513-1515. Oil on canvas, 69 x 57 cm. Musée du Louvre, Paris.

Eve was created from Adam’s rib- she was seen as just an offshoot from the original human form. So, the male figure represented the archetypal human form and dominated art.  But if the male figure represented humankind, in the 20th century it was inevitably caught up in tumultuous social and political change.  For Fascism and Stalinism, the muscular athlete was offered up as the ideal person, a soldier and a labourer.  But the 20th century also saw more and more artists such as Egon Schiele using the nude to show personal, inner struggles and emotional torment, in the tradition of Christ.  A new exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris explores this history of the male nude over the past two centuries.  From an embodiment of social ideal to the representation of a tormented individual, and from the powerful, muscled man to the androgyny of the Renaissance, the male nude offers a fascinating reflection of society usually eclipsed by its female counterpart.

Egon Schiele, Self-Portrait, Nude, 1910. Gouache, watercolour, black crayon and white highlighting, 44.9 x 31.3 cm. Leopold Collection, Leopold Museum, Vienna.
Egon Schiele, Self-Portrait, Nude, 1910. Gouache, watercolour, black crayon and white highlighting, 44.9 x 31.3 cm. Leopold Collection, Leopold Museum, Vienna.

Masculine / Masculine. The Nude Man in Art from 1800 to the Present Day will be showing at the Musée d’Orsay, Paris until 2 January 2014. If you’d like to read more about the male nude, check out Esther Selsdon and Jeanette Zwingerberger’s book on Egon Schiele, Eugène Müntz’s look at the masterworks of Leonardo da Vinci or, for something a little lighter, perhaps Shaun Cole’s The Story of Men’s Underwear is more your thing…

G.A.

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