‘Masculine/Masculine. The Nude Man in Art from 1800 to the Present Day’ is a current exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay, Paris which at its opening, naturally stimulated plenty of conversation in both press and society. Why? Because it is actually one of the first exhibitions to focus completely on the male nude form.
The artwork is divided into sections: ranging from the classical ideal, heroic nudes, the naked truth, poses in studio and out in nature, nudes in pain and as an object of desire. It doesn’t take much to recognise the themes as they unfold from artists such as Freud, Mapplethorpe, Bacon, and Wiley to name just a few. Whether tortured or tender, they are all indeed a festivity of male form.
Some of the work is breathtaking and interestingly situated as often the same theme or subject matter will be exhibited side by side; a photo beside an 18th Century Painting serves to offer striking contrast in both taste and media.
The sculptures which punctuate the rooms range in scale but all share the same level of passion in anatomical precision. From Muek’s hyperrealistic “Dead Dad” to the sculpture of David (c. 1872) by Antonin Mercié one feels as if one is in a lecture tour offering an historical record as opposed to any particular insight.
Does it need to be accentuated that the majority of the artwork about men is by men in this exhibition? Certainly the man as an object of desire is largely demonstrated through an underpinning of homosexual erotic imagery but this needn’t detract from the incredible range of works such as Jean Jules Antoine Lecompte de Nouy’s agonizing “Mort pour la Patrie” (1892), Jacques Louis David’s “Academie D’homme dites Patrocle” (1780), Karl Sterrer’s rippling “Atlas” (1910), and Paul Cadmus’s exceptionally intimate “Le Bain” (1951).
However, the list could go and this is a bit like the exhibition; painting, drawing, photograph and sculpture in a list as if the curator hasn’t had quite enough time to present the work. One might be inclined to think that less is more but this is not an option. The strength and beauty of Pierre et Gilles’ ”Mercury” (image above) is sadly lost by the end of the exhibition as one reaches a point of overkill as there are definitely more works of art by Pierre et Gilles than any other single artist featured. It may be glorious to celebrate the multiracial existence of society in Vive La France but all you end up with is an admiration of beautifully formed genitalia which is suddenly out of place with the sublime lines of other pieces of art on show.
Francis Bacon’s raw “Three People in a Room”, (1964) is one of the few that doesn’t outline shape and form in the same way that most of the other work does and yet, it screams pain and within it offers some depth of emotion which until that point, was distinctly lacking through the layout of the exhibition.
Someone wrote in the comments book about the theme of homosexuality running through the exhibition and I challenge such a thought. The male form, is indeed both beautiful and ridiculous in the same way as the female form. It is delightful to savour the works on show for the variety they bring not only in the content of theme but also the physical shape of man. It may feel like an overzealous attempt at creating an exhibition which is in many ways, breaking boundaries but put this enthusiasm aside and enjoy the art from Burne-Jones to Rodin, from Warhol to Henri Camille Danger and indeed from Pierre et Gilles to Jean Baptiste Federick Desmarais no matter how camp they may appear when viewed side by side.
There is one particular painting which stood out as intentionally homoerotic. “Shower, After The Battle” (1944) by Alexandre Alexandrovitch Deineka, is as it is described. There is an air of power amongst these young men but at the same time, their youth and vulnerability is palpable. Did Putin really hesitate before lending this work of art? One hopes so, in order that the current international debate over gay rights remains in the forefront of conversation. After all the exhibition’s timing certainly keeps this in mind. But, at the end of the day, as gay rights arguments should be part of a human rights issue agenda, so should these works of art be seen as a general compendium of male form. Informative, a little light on analysis and depth but exceptionally beautiful never the less, there is probably something for everyone in this is exhibition so it’s a must on the to do list.
‘Masculine/Masculine. The Nude Man in Art from 1800 to the Present Day’ is at the Musée d’Orsay until 2 January 2014.
Text: © JL Nash, 2013
Pierre et Gilles, Mercure [Mercury], 2001 © Pierre et Gilles. Courtesy Galerie Jérôme de Noirmont, Paris.
Jean-Baptiste Frédéric Desmarais, The Shepherd Paris, 1787 Ottawa, National Gallery of Canada, Photo © NGC
Adolphe William Bouguereau, Equality before Death (1848) © Musée d’Orsay, dist. RMN / Patrice Schmidt
Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825), Patroclus, 1780. Oil on canvas, 122 x 170 cm. Cherbourg-Octeville, © Musée d’art Thomas-Henry