Say the word “nude” in art and you’re likely to picture the female form. After all, most artists through history were male and since the 16th century, their objects of affection were women – typically viewed in a reclining and often passive pose.
Lately, though, male nudity – the kind that dominated ancient and Renaissance art – is back, though not necessarily in the traditional pose of courage or power, as in Michelangelo “David.”
The Musée d’Orsay has opened a show of the nude male in painting, sculpture, graphic arts and photography under the title ‘Masculine / Masculine” – a reference to the varying ways artists through history have envisioned the form from stately to suffering to erotic.
One may wonder about public reaction. Last year, this column reported on a show at the Leopold Museum in Austria titled “The Naked Men” that was not well-received. Public outcry forced the Leopold Museum to hide all imagery of genitalia under red paper strips in their advertising posters.
"We got many, many complaints,” said Leopold Museum spokesman Klaus Pokorny. “We didn't realize that many, many people would be really upset or really angry…You always hope that we have made progress, that we are now in the 21st century."
Such hope seemed reasonable given that the Leopold Museum owns the largest collection in the world of early 20th century Expressionist painter Egon Schiele, who was known for his nudes both male and female that were once seized as pornographic. At his trial the judge burned one of his works over the flame of a candle.
Not that Americans are any more evolved than the Austrians. Remember the uproar over the National Endowment for the Arts funding of controversial art like the homoerotic images by Robert Mapplethorpe? Yet no one seems to mind (or notice?) Benvenuto Cellini's "Virtue Overcoming Vice” in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., which describes a nude man whipped by a nude woman.
One may wonder why male nudity in art upsets modern man given that it dates back to ancient times when Greek athletes competed in the altogether and artists paid homage to their bodies beautiful.
As this column theorized last year, the answer may be found in the warring of two old ideals that tie us up: The Renaissance ideal, which says bodies stand for truth and beauty, and the medieval ideal, which says bodies stand for shame.
It’s as if we crave the security of the medieval tradition, though it’s hard to understand why. I’m thinking of a 1473 painting. "The Martyrdom of Saint Agatha," which pictures men mutilating the breasts of a female in the belief that the female is a sexual temptation and must be crushed.
It’s notable that artists haven’t yet crushed any testicles.