From sensual Saint Sebastians pierced with arrows and a muscled Mercury showing off his sexy hips to Egon Schiele’s masturbatory self-portraits: hundreds of naked men are on display at the Musée d’Orsay for an exhibition entirely dedicated to the representation of male nudes in Western art. The museum brings together old and contemporary works to reveal the constancy of a long unavowed fascination with the masculine nude, divided thematically into depictions of religion, mythology, athleticism, homosexuality and shifting notions of manliness. Believing the subject was long overdue for some real exposure, Guy Cogeval, the Musée d’Orsay director and also co-curator of the exhibition Masculine / Masculine, didn’t want it to be shocking but scholarly and fun at the same time – this is an exhibition that doesn’t take itself seriously. He hopes the exhibition will make the public reflect and expects it to spark off debate. Presenting nearly 200 works (70 paintings, 21 sculptures, drawings and photographs) from the 18th century to present-day, the show opened on 24 September and will run until 2 January 2014.
This bold exhibition addresses a theme often explored via the fairer sex. While the female nude is regularly in the spotlight, the naked man – though perhaps no longer scandalous – still disturbs, maintaining an air of illicitness despite the fact that it is one of the major themes of the history of art. Until the Leopold Museum in Vienna’s exhibition in autumn 2012, which inspired the Orsay show, there had never been an exhibition celebrating the male body. The homoerotic weight of certain works is deliberately highlighted, especially towards the end of the show, which is devoted to “The Object of Desire”. “The Temptation of the Male” is explicitly represented by Jean Cocteau’s erotic drawings or David Hockney’s Sunbather. Though the male nude remains a taboo subject, it has nonetheless been at the very foundation of traditional academic art training from the 17th to 19th centuries and constitutes a key element of Western creative art. Thus, the great classical nudes are not the least suggestive, if one recalls the very lustful Barberini faun sculpted around 2,300 years ago. represented using the ideal proportions inherited from ancient Greece, the male physique in 20th-century art is marked by sometimes radical questioning, revealing a body stripped down to the naked truth. With this exhibition, the museum is seeking to conquer new audiences, other than its usual enthusiasts of Impressionism and 19th-century art, even willing to lose a part of its traditional bourgeois public who might be afraid to see it. The museum opted for an approach joyfully combining eras, styles, techniques and nationalities that dialogue with each other rather than a chronological presentation, exposing aesthetic or intellectual links between the works of Georges de La Tour, Pierre Puget, Nicolai Abildgaard, Lucian Freud and Ron Mueck, showing the many ways to interpret the naked body. "Académie d’Homme, Dite Patrocle" (1780) by Jacques-Louis David neighbors Pablo Picasso’s "The Adolescents" (1906), for example. There are certain juxtapositions that are unexpected yet very beautiful, such as the coexistence in the same room of the painted photo "Vive La France" (three naked football players looking like gods of the stadium) by Pierre et Gilles and the 1913 oil on canvas "Pushing Weights with Two Arms II" by Eugène Fredrik
Jansson. The theme of man in nature offers a joyous and colorful breather with the bathers of Cézanne and Munch. But just before are expressive representations of the body in the throes of torment or pain beautifully evoked by the works of painfully dismembered bodies by Francis Bacon – marking a deviation from classical norms of restraint and the decline of the academic nude. The martyr can, nevertheless, inspire compositions other than the tortured figure, like Kehinde Wiley’s "Death of Abel Study", depicting the pose of a totally relaxed body at the point of death in a state of morbid ecstasy.
American photographer David LaChapelle is an interesting case of an artist at the crossroads of art and advertising, having made his name through his highly- colorful fashion photography and flamboyantly baroque and often carefree portraits of celebrities, together with an interest in the underside of the American dream, pop culture and the history of art. In his dream factory, beside popular icons of industry, fashion and music, elaborate stagings that tell entertaining stories emerge in the “tableau vivant” genre. In doing so, his compositions often refer to artworks from previous centuries, for example a recent photographic fresco reinterpreting Leonardo da Vinci’s "Last Supper" featuring figureless floating heads and expressive yet detached hands inside cardboard boxes, which compositionally represents the original. a recurrent subject for the artist who mixes the sacred and the profane, he continues to reflect on the renaissance of the spiritual in our material- dominated society.
This is the case in his photograph "Would-Be Martyr and 72 Virgins", a paraphrase of Grandville’s illustrations in Gulliver’s Travels written by Jonathan Swift. In LaChapelle’s version, instead of the giant Gulliver, a handsome young naked man is tied to the ground by veiled “virgins”. Thus immobilized, the artist calls into question the promises of pleasures made to Muslim martyrs, where 72 virgins are offered to the martyr as one of the seven blessings from
allah. There is an ambiguity between pain and pleasure, the expression of pain often concealing exultation, and the pain experienced by the naked male body naturally relates to issues of power between men and women in contemporary society, questioning male domination. This image has previously been seen in nine exhibitions worldwide, and 2013 will be the first time that the photograph is produced in such an enormous scale, with this particular print making its international debut at Masculine / Masculine.
For some, the exhibition may appear controversial; for others, very tame, even prudish. There’s not much that is shocking. There are no erections. even LaChapelle only alludes to it in his provocative portrait "Eminem: About to Blow", where the naked rapper holds over his crotch a lit stick of dynamite with his mouth open and tongue out. Part of the thematic named “It’s Tough Being a Hero”, the chromogenic print is surrounded by depictions of Hercules, Prometheus, achilles and Hippolytus, mythological heroes who risked the anger of the gods and the jealousy of men, unaffected by age or death. As it was originally shot for Rolling Stone magazine in 1999 – the year Eminem rose to mainstream popularity – LaChapelle pushed the boundaries of public expectation, and the curators seem to be comparing the macho rapper to a glorified hero who possesses the perfect form of the gods.