The Musee d’Orsay has put on an extensive exhibition on every aspect of the male nude and its representations - from the early nineteenth century to the present day. Whilst the female nude has been commonly exhibited throughout the centuries the male nude has not had the same treatment. In fact the first museum to exhibit it was the Leopold Museum in Vienna and this was only last year. Drawing on the wealth of its own collections and other public French museums the Musee d’Orsay introduces - sometimes quite playfully - a whole range of techniques of painting, sculpture, graphic arts and photography on this previously taboo subject.
The male nude was from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century the basis of traditional Academic art training and was considered to be the archetypal human form. Many male artists found in the nude a magnified, narcissistic reflection of themselves whilst in the nineteenth century the female body was established as an absolute object of male desire. The male sexual organ was even up to the middle of the twentieth century seen as rather embarrassing. As you first enter the exhibition there is a beautiful and sensual painting of a male model’s back side by the French Neoclassical eighteenth century painter, Jacques Louis David. The detail of the muscles and the elegance of form is incredible. One of the most famous, and for me important, paintings in the show is ‘La Roue de la Fortune’, painted by the Pre Raphaelite artist, Edward BurneJones. Being a keen admirer of the pre-Raphaelite school I am always delighted when I can look at their paintings close up and this painting is truly magnificent. Based on classical mythology the painting depicts a lady in black flanked by three semi-nude men.
In the twentieth century there was movement away from traditional classicism and a new way of looking at the male body emerged which emphasized largeness, sensuality and crude nudity. Big men were playfully portrayed in life size paintings and photos with rippling muscles, seen for example in the photo ‘Vive La France’, by the two French artists Pierre et Gille. It is a provocative photo of three nude footballers and is curiously both fun and crude. These two famous gay artists have been working together since 1977 and produce work that is both eye catching and a statement on the social and political ideology of this century. In contrast to this largeness there is a model of a shrunken naked male body created by Ron Mueck called ‘Pere Mort’. The rather ashen man is lying on his back with his arms at his side as if on a table in a morgue and it is quite remarkable in an eerie way. We learn that it is a representation of Mueck’s grief for his dead father. In Egon Shiele’s ‘Nude Autoportraits’ three distorted, emaciated figures are portrayed in a mixture of warm colours and angles. Perhaps nudity is made more palatable in these small but evocative self portraits. Francis Bacon’s large and amazing painting, entitled ‘In Pain’, however is psychologically loaded. Bacon in his life time produced a huge body of work that was predominantly focused on the male nude. We see how cruelty and torment characterises the painting and suggests a hidden violence. The naked body becomes demeaning and male virility itself is called into question. This is paralleled in LouiseBourgeois’ choice of a male figure in her sculpture ‘Arch of Hysterics’ It is a haunting but exceptionally beautiful bronze of a man hanging from a string attached to his stomach with his head cut off. Mental illness which is normally seen as something feminine has been made male by Bourgeois in a clever twisting of stereotypes.
Even more playful and sexually ambiguous is the art of the renowned artist, David Hockney, seen in his film ‘Bigger Splash’ and his painting ‘Sunbathing’. In the painting - which forms part of his swimming pool series - there is a feeling of freedom and sensuality as well as homosexual undertones. In the film too there is a sense of playfulness and eroticism as a number of young, virile naked men play and laugh with each other in the glistening sun and shine of the swimming pool. In this last section of the exhibition Hockney teems with artists such as Andy Warhol and Angel Zarraga.
The exhibition mingles adroitly paintings with photos, sculptures and film footage and teems up many of the great artists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It is well worth a visit. By Larissa Woolf, Arts Editor, VisitMuseums.com