Nudes in film are typically a sexually-loaded sight. Oddly, this became true in fine art when it came to male nudes, even though men in the buff were once a common sight. In Sparta athletes trained and performed au naturel and artists rendered them that way. Ancient Greek art abounded with unclad males. No biggie.
And such imagery didn’t end with Sparta. It showed up in painting and sculpture all through the centuries until the Victorian era. You can blame that era, if you want to. But faulting a prudish queen doesn’t answer why it took the western world until now, nearly two centuries later, to show bare-skinned males in art again? The latest example is “The Male Nude: Eighteenth-century drawings from the Paris Academy” at the Wallace Collection in London.
Gil Saudners, a curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Gil Saunders, seemed to answer this question in her 1989 book “The Nude: A New Perspective.” She theorized that the reason for our keeping the disrobed male out of drawings and paintings was the vulnerability and passivity long associated with female nudes. She cited Ruben’s painting “Cain Slaying Abel,” which describes Abel, the victim of the slaying, as naked and his assailant clad in an animal skin. Victimhood, inaction – all the messages sent in paintings and sculpture of nude females - didn’t suit modern man’s self-image, Saunders said.
If that’s true, it’s as if the 20th century forgot the lengthy history of the stripped male playing the hero’s role in art. It’s as if we forgot that studying from live nude male in order to tell heroic stories of history and the Bible was the core of all art curricula and a key part in the traditional training of artists.
Apparently, we’re remembering now. Either that or men are magically shedding their he-man side to reveal their human side.