Wandering the rooms of Europe’s most prestigious art institutions, it would be natural to find numerous striking examples of classical male nudes. Whether you are looking at Michelangelo’s statue of David in the Galleria dell’Accademia or Caravaggio’s painting Victorious Cupid at the Gemäldegalerie, no doubt you will be overcome with admiration for their artistry and magnificence. In that awestruck moment, you might not realise how influential these classical representations of the body have been for the perception of male gender throughout history, nor how damaging.
I would argue that what has traditionally and stereotypically been defined as ‘male’ can be traced through the history of the classical male nude.
The history of the male nude
The tradition of the nude in Western art originates from Ancient Greece, where the naked male body was celebrated throughout society and in artistic representations. Sculptors chose to honour their gods and warriors with nude statues, applying increasingly realistic human features. Statues became a convenient canvas for sculptors to explore the personality traits and ideal characteristics that the Greeks believed epitomised the male gender. Men, seen as the superior and canonical sex, were associated with power, strength and moral excellence. Gradually, the representation of the male body looking muscular, powerful, alert, balanced, and flawless developed to parallel Greek concepts.
Even though the nude was unpopular in the Middle Ages, its classical style was revived during the Renaissance where it was accepted as the ideal representation of the male gender. The male nude quickly became the pinnacle of artistic practice, an important motif for aspiring artists to master and central to grand biblical and historical paintings. In its well-established classical form, the male nude retained its supremacy within high art and was largely unchanged until the 19th century.
How has the classical male nude historically damaged the perception of male gender?
With an understanding of the classical definition and representation of the masculine sex, it is obvious that modern society has witnessed little progression towards different perceptions. For instance, even now men continue to be thought of as strong and powerful and are arguably still the superior sex in society. Moreover, the classical depiction of the male body, muscular and flawless, has persisted as the ‘ideal’ form for the male gender.
If you think about 21st century society, isn’t the ideal male body, though starkly different from the average man, still evidently present and indeed coveted? Examples of it are readily found and promoted, not only in the classical sculptures and paintings integrated into western culture, but now in magazines, and advertisements, and on TV programmes and social media platforms.
But, the stereotype of ‘the ideal male’ has had a damaging influence, where men collectively face pressure to look and act the endorsed way. As clearly established in classical representations, men must look strong and honed, while demonstrating their invulnerability. Undeniably, society unfavourably views and discourages displaying traits outside of the ‘ideal’, such as fragility and feebleness. Ultimately, the legacy of the classical male nude has resulted in restrictions on the diversity of the male figure and a distorted male identity.
What are artists doing to combat this?
The implications of the ideal male nude have yet to be explored thoroughly by art historians. Artists, however, have been challenging its damaging stereotypes since the end of the 19th century with revolutionary depictions of non-idealised male bodies. Forerunners in the fight to counter stereotypes and re-evaluate male identity include Egon Schiele, David Hockney and Robert Mapplethorpe. These artists shattered the constrictive mould of the classical male nude by creating new styles and highlighting alternative characteristics in their representations of the naked male body.
Egon Schiele, and also Lucian Freud much later in the 20th century, challenged idealisation by experimenting with ‘anti-heroic’ male figures. Painting from strange angles and with intense colours, Schiele contorted and deformed the male body to the point where it became almost frightening and uncomfortable to view.
In the 1960s, David Hockney questioned the tradition of overt ‘masculinity’ in male nudes by patenting a tender and more feminine body. He incorporated untraditional vulnerability and taboo homoeroticism into his brightly coloured scenes of male nudity.
In his well-known photographs of male genitalia, Robert Mapplethorpe assigned greater sexuality and a new submissiveness to the male body. Displayed in the 1970s, they were extremely controversial during a period when full frontal male nudity was still sensitive, especially in the explicit way that Mapplethorpe championed. His intention was to utilise confrontational depictions of genitalia to demonstrate the inherent, but traditionally hidden, sexuality of the male body.
As I have reasoned, by understanding the history of the classical male nude, you can begin to understand society’s stereotypical and somewhat harmful perception of the male gender. The next chapter of its history is being crafted by dissatisfied modern artists who are redefining the representation of men in art with their powerful and revolutionary nude images.
Hi, my name is Katie Price and I’m a Student Ambassador for the second cohort at The Art Story. I’m currently a second-year student at the University of Birmingham studying a joint-honours in history and history of art. Personally, I love the fact that art provides access to the past and a way to understand it, through analysing the processes and products of human creativity from different periods.