The male nude in art is not as often talked about as its female counterpart. However, apart from being easy on the eye, the male body in art is full of history and has undergone a host of fascinating transformations over the past 2000 years. We’ve put together 9 key moments for a whistlestop tour of art historical man candy. Read on, and we’ll reveal all.
No.1 The God
Our first stop on this quick tour is Ancient Greece. Spanning several centuries, the art of the Ancient Greeks is hard to summarise, but it certainly shows an increasing tendency towards lifelikeness. You only have to look at the difference between 7th Century BC kouroi (or “youths”), with their long hair and static bodies and statues from the classical period (5thC BC), with their athletic physique and relaxed pose (characterised by a little hip swing), called contrapposto.
The Greeks imagined their gods to look like perfect humans, and so the images of these deities have an idealising quality that carried through to other subjects too. The idealising nature of the male nude in this period runs even deeper, as physical beauty was often associated with goodness (in Plato’s philosophy for example). Lastly, it has also been suggested that the statues’ chiselled abs may be more than just eye candy: being a militant people, the Greeks represented soldier-like male bodies, with muscular structures that resembled armour.
No.2 The Sinner
Associated with Original Sin and questions of (im)morality, nudity almost turns into something to be embarrassed about. This is reflected in painted, drawn and sculpted bodies, which become slight and slender, without the same emphasis on naturalism.
No.3 The Renaissance Man
With a renewed interest in naturalism in the arts, the nude also becomes a site for an artist to show his skills: with its various textures, depths and shadows, the body became a great artistic test. To achieve the ultimate naturalism, artists became increasingly involved with anatomical study too.
No.4 Pushed to Extremities
No.5 Following the Rules
No.6 Masculinity Questioned
From the late 18th and during the course of the 19th century, the way the male body looks is no longer a given. In France for example, after the Napoleonic wars had shown a less heroic side of conflict and had changed the look of the male population (a lot of which was now scarred or missing limbs), artists experiment with a different type of male body, including a body that is not overtly masculine, such as Girodet’s Endymion. Towards the end of the nineteenth-century this still perseveres (consider for example the medieval-inspired, boyish males of Pre-Raphaelite art in England), but this time also sees the emergence of strongly realistic portrayals of men by artists such as Courbet and Millet. The ideal view of masculinity taught at the academies makes way for real people.
No.7 Changed Man
No.8 Man of the Masses
Mass culture greatly influences depictions of the body by Pop Artists, but this is not the only new cultural phenomenon that is reflected. Keith Haring and Basquiat later reference street art and culture with their style of painting the body.
No.9 Unsettling Man
Again, there really isn’t a single type of nude to pinpoint, but artists now not only make changes to the body, but also draw attention to its more uncomfortable qualities and complexities. Artists like Lucian Freud for example show us a male body that is almost too real, too fleshy and unsettling for us to look at. Today’s body is confrontational, political and sometimes outright difficult to face. In other words, a world away from Classical Greece.
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