Musée d’Orsay: The Male Nude



Male nudity was from the 17th to 19th centuries, the basis of traditional Academic art training and a key element in Western creative art. Therefore the Musée d’Orsay will draw on the wealth of its own and other French public collections.

For centuries, naked women in Western art have been openly celebrated as objects of desire. From Botticelli’s coy “Birth of Venus” circa 1485 to Annie Leibovitz’s 1991 portrait of a heavily pregnant Demi Moore, the female form has been idealized as a thing of beauty. While it has been quite natural for the female nude to be regularly exhibited, the male nude has not been accorded the same treatment.

The “Masculin/Masculin” exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay will exhibit 200 works about male nudes from as far back as 1800, and the art crowd in the French capital is already buzzing about the “out of favour” male physique finally going on show in one of the world’s greatest museums. The exhibition aims to take an interpretive, playful, sociological and philosophical approach to exploring all aspects and meanings of the male nude in art.

Given that the 19th century took its inspiration from 18th century classical art, and that this influence still resonates today, the Musée d’Orsay is extending its traditional historical range in order to draw a continuous arc of creation through two centuries down to the present day, and will include the whole range of techniques: painting, sculpture, graphic arts and, of course, photography, which will have an equal place in the exhibition.

gray scale photo of topless man covering face

Photo by Vic Tor on

For Guy Cogeval, the Orsay’s president, the subject was overdue for some real exposure. “I’ve wanted to explore this theme for a long time, since I was director of the Musee des Beaux-Arts in Montreal 15 years ago. I suggested doing it but it was explained to me that it would be frowned upon,” he said. “Masculin/Masculin” will feature painting, sculpture, and “a lot of photography”, Cogeval said, as “one of our themes is the homoerotic, which is a thread throughout the exhibition”.

“The first big artists who were openly gay were generally photographers,” he explained, citing 19th century gay pioneers Baron Wilhelm von Gloeden, a German who worked mainly in Italy, and the American Fred Holland Day. The male nude, Cogeval believes, is “no longer possible to ignore”, and the Orsay programme features many staunchly heterosexual artists such as Angel Zarraga, Paul Flandrin, Jacques-Louis David and Anne Louis Girodet celebrating men at their most natural.

It is highly significant that until the show at the Leopold Museum in Vienna in the autumn of 2012, no exhibition had opted to take a fresh approach, over a long historical perspective, to the representation of the male nude. We as a society just aren’t used to seeing naked men,” said museum spokesman Klaus Pokorny. Popes throughout history have covered up the private parts of male nude sculptures in Vatican City. Even history’s most famous male nude, Michelangelo’s “David,” was subjected to the constrictions of modesty. London museum officials ordered a fig leaf be placed strategically over a replica in a London museum, after it shocked Queen Victoria.  In 1898, Viennese painter Gustav Klimt was forced to cover a poster he’d done of a naked Theseus defeating the Minotaur that he made to promote the Vienna Secession art movement’s first exhibition.

Naked men were often put into ‘safe’ contexts—depicted as mythological or religious figures, including as Christ—which effectively shielded them from discussions about their sexuality. It was beyond the pale to think of religious figures in sexual terms. In the 16th century, Fra Bartolomeo’s painting of St. Sebastian was removed by priests in Florence after female worshippers dished in confession that they were fantasizing about the saint.

To promote the show, the Leopold hung 180 large posters in Vienna of “Vive la France,” a 2006 photograph by the French artists Pierre Commoy and Gilles Blanchard showing three fully naked men posing with soccer balls. The ensuing criticism caused museum officials to draft contingency plans for protests and cover the players strategically with red ribbons. “Nude Men” begans with statues from antiquity, including one of the Egyptian court official Snofrunefer dated 2400 B.C. But the bulk of the show chronicles developments in the past 200 years.

The 19th century was one of the heydays for the male nude. The ideals of individuality and reason so powerfully espoused in the late 1700s by Voltaire and Immanuel Kant trickled down into early and mid-19th century French art. Nudity was used to distinguish heroes—often defined by their independence and employment of reason—from the hoi polloi.

“Male nudity was associated with independence,” even if it resulted in a heroic death, says Daniela Hammer-Tugendhat, art history professor at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna. Male nudes played a dominant role in Europe’s famous all-male art academies, as shown in works like Tancrède Bastet’s 1883 “View of the Art School of the History Painter Alexandre Cabanel.”

“There were clearly occasional female models, too, but right into the 19th century it was often easier and cheaper to use nude male models in academic institutions,” says Geraldine Johnson, an art historian at Oxford University. In the exhibit, Joseph-Désiré Court’s large oil “Death of Hippolytus” from 1828 portrays the naked Greek figure being killed after scorning his stepmother’s advances while an angel in William Adolphe Bouguereau’s 1848 work “Equality Before Death” covers a stalwart, naked corpse.

By the early 20th century, male heroism was faltering, giving way to the brooding introspection of Austrian artists Egon Schiele, Anton Kolig and Richard Gerstl. “Several historical factors began threatening traditional male society,” says Ms. Hammer-Tugendhat. Industrialization meant individual manpower wasn’t as crucial. Women began to protest their societal positions and the Austrian Empire was weakening, she noted. Artists questioned whether it was still relevant to portray modern men as heroes of anti-quity. During this period, Schiele was prolific in creating nude self portraits before his death from the Spanish flu at age 28. “Schiele opened the door for the artist to portray himself naked,” says the show’s curator Tobias Natter.

At times, early 20th century artists painted themselves both clothed and nude in similar poses to accentuate the contrasts between their clothed public and naked private personas. Richard Gerstl’s 1907 “Self-Portrait With Palette” shows the artist staring at the viewer in a dark blue suit. But his 1908 “Nude Self-Portrait with Palette,” completed shortly before his suicide at age 25, shows the artist nude and glaring at the viewer with wild eyes. Schiele and Gerstl’s works kicked off a century of nude self-portraits by male artists, a theme radicalized by later artists like American Robert Mapplethorpe.

Around 1900, the proliferation of photography gave rise to nude portraiture of bodybuilders and photography of naked athletes. The feminist and gay movements beginning in the 1970s spurred a growing number of female and openly gay or bisexual male artists like Andy Warhol interpreting their sexual fantasies via art. The museum explores these themes in its two most graphic sections, with works like Warhol’s 1982 “Querelle” and Urs Lüthi’s self-portraits exploring gender identity.

The “Masculin/Masculin” exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay will exhibit 200 works about male nudes from as far back as 1800,
24 September 2013 – 2 January 2014
Musée d’Orsay
Exposition temporaire

About Art Selectronic

Art Selectronic is an artist-led initiative, that supports grass-roots contemporary art that remains unswayed by fashion, trends or the whims of government funding. The project involves ongoing research into the placing of contemporary art, it’s audiences and it’s relationship to the everyday. We place great emphasis on context. Our mission is to support new works of contemporary art and foster an audience from a wide range of backgrounds.
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