Is that all the male flesh you've got? More please

Ideas

Is that all the male flesh you've got? More please

The fact that #MeToo is forcing galleries to gender-balance their displays should be welcomed - for more than one reason

Rowan Pelling



About 15 years ago I was asked to review an exhibition of the nude in art at one of London’s public galleries.
I was wandering around the 19th-century gallery with a friend, clocking the expected display of William Etty’s pert, pink, porny sirens and demimonde vixens by the likes of Toulouse-Lautrec, when I rounded a corner and found myself gazing straight at the crotch of a languorous male nude. He oozed such a superabundance of limpid sexuality that I yelped: “Dear God, now that IS sexy!” and turned to my companion to see if she agreed.
That’s when I found I’d addressed the comment to a male stranger, who edged away nervously. I was even more surprised when I found the nude in question was executed by John Singer Sargent, famed for his elegant portraits of society women.
The moment made me realise how unused I was to unabashed gawping at the beauty of male flesh. In public spaces, the male nude has tended to be overrepresented by classical and neoclassical sculpture, which – however ravishing – presents distanced marble gods rather than flesh-and-blood lovers.
Over the past year, the #MeToo movement has flagged up this blatant discrepancy, sometimes with absurd results.
You don’t right a historical injustice by removing a masterpiece from the walls of a gallery, as briefly happened in February with John William Waterhouse’s Hylas and the Nymphs. But you can try to balance out naked female flesh with equally splendid examples of naked males.
Happily, this is the course curator Tim Marlow has taken with the Royal Academy’s new autumn exhibition The Renaissance Nude.
Apparently, there’s an observable gender parity in terms of bared torsos.
You may be scratching your head at this point, because in art historical terms there’s been so much emphasis on come-hither nudes such as Titian’s Venus of Urbino and rather less panting attention directed towards, say, lightly-clad saints.
At moments like this, it’s useful to recall the words of the late Kenneth Clark, presenter of the original Civilisation, who once wrote: “No nude, however abstract, should fail to arouse in the spectator some vestige of erotic feeling.”
It might have been even more instructive if Clark had added the sentiment “however religious or allegorical” to his musing on the nude.
You don’t need to be an art expert to note the fact painters down the centuries have been semaphoring suppressed desires through deceptive surface narratives.
Take the many torturous yet seductive portraits of Saint Sebastian – Guido Reni’s pout fests just for starters – almost all of which feature defined musculature and an expression of agony so heightened it could as easily represent sexual ecstasy as death. No wonder gay men, notably Oscar Wilde, adopted the saint as a symbol of forbidden love.
At the risk of sounding like a letch, I must admit to a crush on Jan Gossaert’s full-frontal representations of Adam, who’s portrayed as awakened and conflicted yet with ripped abs that would put Love Island to shame.
Straight female viewers could do worse than gaze upon Giulio Romano’s 16th-century fresco of Jupiter seducing Olympias, and there are plenty of old master sketches that show thighs of iron and buttocks of steel.
The aesthete within appreciates the skill and beauty, but the human locks on to the template of our own desires. It’s a joy – and only fair – that women should now have as much opportunity as men to indulge these dual impulses.
– © The Daily Telegraph

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