The human body, whether male or female, has always been at the very center of representations. Minoan (c.2700-c. 1100 BC) and Mycenaean (c.1600- c.1100 BC) civilizations already had representations of their gods and goddesses, based on the models of the human body. Thereafter, the Greek statuary, despite its large evolutions (archaism, classicism and Hellenism), has represented both female and male bodies. The masculine body was idealized for it represented Gods, or men that the people should look up to such as soldiers; or it was the commissioners who ordered the artists to represent them in an idealized manner. Otherwise, the masculine nude was the means to mathematically perfect representations of the human body as the Apollo Belvedere can testify.
Subsequently, the Roman sculpture kept the characteristics of the Greek’s. Then, the Middle-Ages did not have many nude representations except for that of the Christ on crucifixions, Adam, or the figure of the sinner. It was towards the end of the XIV century with Masaccio, Donatello or Brunelleschi that the best representations of the nearly naked Christ appeared. It is with the beginning of the Renaissance that the body of the naked man started to be reproduced in a purely aesthetic purpose. Greek mythology was being rediscovered, as well as Polykleitos’ Canon, which allowed the representation of the human body to be mathematically perfect. However, one must distinguish nude and nudity: if nudity is the fact of being naked, the nude is the representation of the naked body according to the artist’s viewpoint.
By focusing on Anne-Louis Girodet’s Sleep of Endymion, Auguste Rodin’s The Age of Bronze, and photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe, one can understand that if masculine representations were often in relationship with historical events and the idea of bringing to the fore masculinity along with the idea of power, it shifted to more sexualized representations of the masculine body, with a focus on its exacerbated beauty.
The Sleep of Endymion, painted by Anne-Louis Girodet-Trioson (1767-1824) in 1791, is an oil on canvas today kept in the Louvre Museum in Paris.
The artist was pupil to the neoclassicist painter Jacques-Louis David. Girodet painted Endymion, mythology’s most beautiful mortal. In the scene, Diana – depicted as the moon – is visiting him with the help of Zephyr, who is parting the foliage as to let her light come through. Endymion’s body is based on the antique canons; however, the moon rays give him the look of a young ephebe, sensually caressed by the Goddess of the Moon.
David’s pupil deliberately chose to take a step back from his master’s works. Indeed, David’s nudes were purely academic, as his Hector shows.
His focus was on the perfect measurements of the body, on the effects of the light on this wounded figure, whose position is yet very unnatural as to focus on the previously mentioned effects. Girodet however, wanted to “do something new”. First of all, the choice of the scene is interesting regarding the painter’s desires: he did not choose a scene in which the male body could be magnified, but chose a love scene, a scene in which man is in a weak position, a sentimental position that would unavoidably lead to a sentimental representation – foreshadowing perhaps the Symbolist works in which man is weak when facing the manipulative femme fatale. The position of the body of Endymion is very sensual with his right hand falling behind his head.
Secondly, Girodet did not only focus on the body itself, but on the entire scene. Considering David’s Hector or Patroclus, one can see that the focus is on the academic representation of the body, as the paintings both lack a precise background. Here, Girodet did not only focus on the body, but on the entire scene, showing that his focus was not only the male body, but how the nude fits and reacts to a particular background and staging. Moreover, the way Girodet chose to represent Endymion is closer to that of Mannerists: there is a strong resemblance between Girodet’s Endymion and Michelangelo’s Dying Slave.
The position of Endymion’s right arm, and the slave’s left arm is identical. The contrapposto found in the standing sculpture by Michelangelo can also be found in the lying figure by Girodet. Also, the two figures are in very precious positions despite the named action they are supposed to be doing. The slave is supposed to be dying, but there is a highly precious if ever nearly sexual tension and representation in Michelangelo’s choices. The same goes for Endymion who, supposedly asleep, is in a very precious position too, which enhances the beautiful aspect of his body. Both the slave and Endymion are very sensual, and the latter is leaning towards a feminine sensuality since it can also be compared to Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus.
Once again, the positions of the two bodies are very similar – except that Venus is hiding her gender when Endymion is not. This highlights a new aspect in Girodet’s work: femininity in the representation of a male character. One can suppose that the painter chose to do so as to underline his intention of focusing on the love story that is happening rather than on the academically perfect representation of the virile body.
Similarly enough, Rodin’s Age of Bronze can be compared to Michelangelo’s Dying Slave, especially in their positions.
Conceived in 1876, and cast in 1907, his sculpture can be compared to that of Greek and Roman antiquity, and subsequently to Michelangelo’s work. Auguste Rodin (1840-1917), when he exhibited this sculpture in 1900, entitled it The Awakening Man, making a direct reference to Michelangelo’s Adam in the Sistine Chapel. Thus, Rodin himself linked his work to that of Michelangelo, that he had seen during his Grand Tour, and whose belief was that God himself invested his sculptures with the spirit of life. However, Rodin’s work has more psychological intensity. The Age of Bronze had for model the 22-year-old Belgian Soldier Auguste Neyt. The sculptor had him take several positions before picking this one, for the latter wanted “natural action”. That is what makes it very different from Michelangelo’s Dying Slave for example, for the position is really unnatural when Rodin’s work is more realistic since it is not linked to a particular action but more to a natural position. Firstly, the model is not a professional model but a normal man, who had never done this before. Also, the photography shows that Rodin’s original idea included a spear, that he finally removed to give more importance to the model’s gesture with his left-hand.
It is also a very personal statement for the artist. The title, The Age of Bronze, is a direct reference to Ovid’s four ages of mankind (golden, silver, bronze and iron), but also a way for the sculptor to state that his following works will be in bronze, for The Age of Bronze was the artist’s first success despite accusations against him as the very realistic aspect of the sculpture led Rodin to be accused of having over molded the body of the model. However, one must focus on the French title of the work L’Age d’Airin. “Airin” was the transitional material before bronze. Thus, Rodin wanted to enhance the moment when man had just shifted from the use of stone tools to metal tools. In addition, there is a diffuse energy that spans the sculpture, which is a way of representing the painful awakening of individual conscience, referring to Rousseau’s Speech on the origins of inequalities. There is a strong idea of metamorphosis, as well as for human kind as for the artist in the maturation of his thoughts and beliefs. In opposition to the Endymion by Girodet, whose figure is static and unnatural, Rodin’s model is posing naturally and is overwhelmed by movement.
It is in the 1970/80s, with the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, that is the epitome focus on the exacerbated beauty of the male nude. If Mapplethorpe’s work is often reduced to pornographic or sadomasochist images, the photographer has managed to enhance the sublime of the masculine body through sculpture-like photographs, influenced by Ancient statues. Arnaud Laporte, talking about the retrospective exhibition at the Grand Palais in 2014 dedicated to the artist, calls him the “heir of the Renaissance sculptors”, “a classical sculptor who worked with the means of his time – photography”. Indeed, the bodies in his pictures are marmoreal. His picture of Derrick Cross, taken in 1982 is the perfect example of that aspect.
However, one must contextualize: Mapplethorpe lived in New-York, the seventies had been a decade of great personal and artistic development for him. The black and gay communities were growing in self-confidence, yet still taboo and Mapplethorpe was a gay photographer with HIV, whose love for the male figure went beyond the aesthetic purposes. In the picture, the model is posing in a very athletic posture which recalls that of the Discobole Lancellotti.
The focus is on the effects of the physical effort on the muscles of the body. In both there is a strong tension that highlights the muscles of the arms, legs and abdominals. Moreover, the model chosen by Mapplethorpe has a highly muscular physique that can really recall that of the Antique Statues. However, by choosing a black model, he emancipated himself from the classical perspective and way of thinking, by glorifying this black dancer.
His minimalistic style, that can be found in other pictures such as Charles Bowman / torso, allows him to play with the human body, previously considered as a sculpture and here given more life as, in this photograph, the torso becomes a face: the two nipples are the eyes, the navel the nose.
The arms of his model are raised, suggesting perhaps a support to the Black Power Movement of the 1960s.
The photographer’s work is both influenced by painting and sculpture. The latter is evident, since he has realized many shots of sculptures themselves – testifying of the influence it had on him, and painting because of the flatness of the photographic means. Thus, Mapplethorpe had to work on the staging, and the perfection of his contour lines. The artist also stated that sculpture, painting and photography were the same in terms of energy.
All the examples mentioned until now show that, whatever the time period, the idea behind male nudes always was to sublimate the masculine figure, whether for political, social, or aesthetical reasons. None of the works above were created as to show a negative aspect of masculinity when there are several representations of naked women that were done to denounce a negative aspect of their personality. However, the XX century was also the stage of new, yet few, representations that were more tortured. For example, Egon Schiele’s figures are distorted, for his focus was not on the figure itself but on one’s inner thoughts. In his Sitting male nude (self-portrait), the body is distorted, looking almost like that of a spider.
The expressionist painter wanted to focus not on the body itself but on the tortured aspect of his life as an artist. That is transcribed with his complicated position, the redness of his eyes, how his arms seem to imprison his mouth or tear his head-off, as if the artist’s mind was one too difficult to bear with. Schiele is one of the few artists who has not depicted the male body as to bring to the fore its beauty or qualities of manhood, but has painted himself naked as to show his weaknesses. Lucian Freud (1922-2011) had a similar yet not identical approach to his self-portraits, for he used his own nudity to show how the painter’s
creative process and creations are a way for him to show his bare soul and mind. His Painter working, reflection gives a perfect echo of that idea, just as Alex Colville’s (1920-2013) Studio does.
Moreover, Freud’s male nudes are – in opposition to the majority of male nudes seen until now, and in general – without intention of glorifying masculinity. They also tend to show man’s weaknesses, as it can be understood in Naked man on a bed, painted in 1987. The man is in a fetal position, a coming back to one of the very first states of a man’s life, and a state in which man is at its weakest as he depends on his mother. By choosing such a position for his model, the painter opposed himself to nearly every prior work done on male nudes. Indeed, male nudes have always had the intention of glorifying the stronger sex. Whether for mythological, political, or purely aesthetical representations, the greater number – starting from the Renaissance – are academically perfect depictions of muscular bodies, destined to depict moments of great psychological intensity leading to victorious events (always as to show the strength of man), or only to enhance the beauty of the body itself. Egon Schiele and Lucian Freud are perhaps the only examples of painters whose male nudes do not have such an intention.
Finally, by the XX century, eroticism and sexuality linked to male nude representations started to appear. Until then, these subjects were often represented through female nudes and men were not associated to such themes. However, with the previously mentioned development of, for instance, the gay community in the US and the growth of HIV victims, artists like Mapplethorpe or Keith Haring used the male nudity to talk about taboo subjects that had never been treated before. The photographer has realized many photographs concerning homosexual practices.
Still in the 1970s, it was believed that homosexuality could be cured through medical treatments such as medication or neuroscientific experiments that meant to stop an individual from having any sexual desire (for men, it consisted in giving them female hormones that would sometimes lead to the growing of breasts, etc.). By taking such photographs, Robert Mapplethorpe showed an aspect of masculinity that has always existed in society (for Pompei frescoes also show erotic representations of homosexual practices, whether among men or women), but that society had not accepted at all at the time. However, in the 1980s began to appear an increasing awareness concerning sexually transmitted diseases, and most particularly the HIV virus which lingered amongst gay communities. The works of Keith Haring, who, just like Robert Mapplethorpe was infected with HIV, aimed at raising awareness against that infection.
The theme of the male nude, until the second half of the XX century, has always been aiming at glorifying the masculine body and consequently the masculine intelligence and mind. Throughout the examples developed in this essay, one understands that the representations were that of men with muscular bodies, or more androgynous representations, often when concerning mythological subjects. The 1960/70s were a turning point for the subject, for the idea of exalting man (and often to decline the image of women as the history of female nudes can show) was no longer the focus, and new matters started to appear in society and therefore in art history. Moreover, the idea of painters showing their humanity, their weaknesses, also started to develop in the self-portraits of the late 1980s until those of today, and nudity was a means to show the very soul and artistic research of the painter. Thus, the development of the subject of the male nude reflects a historical sociological aspect that is that of the masculine domination as a symbol of strength, beauty, intelligence and power; however, contemporary works show that the mid-twentieth century was the stage to the beginning of a shift in the artists’ mindsets and subjects regarding their perception, as artists, on the nudity of men.
- Anne-Louis GIRODET DE ROUSSY-TRIOSON. The Sleep of Endymion. Salons of and 1814 1793. 1.98 m; W. 2.61 m. Louvre. https://www.louvre.fr/en/oeuvre-notices/sleep-endymion.
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