By Francois de Louville and Edward Lucie-Smith
There have been hundreds of publications devoted to the classical female nude. In all the visual art forms, displays of female nudity have been a safe and sanctioned characteristic of art. The male nude was only allowed to be seen in public due to religious themes, and even these were usually accompanied by terrible images of pain and discreet folds or fig leaves. If a man was going to be seen in the nude, he wasn’t going to be seen to be enjoying it!
Since the early 1970s images of the male nude have appeared on the open market in comic book form, like Tom of Finland and hard-core photography essays, with unfettered online access men and women can now view all the nude men they want.
This book is a catalogue of the work of 49 men and women organised by gallery curator, de Louville, for a recent exhibition in London. Billed as a compendium of the best of late-twentieth-century artists, it inevitably isn’t. Painting the nude, like portraiture, is a traditional skill not in high demand by the public or gallery purchasers. The book is, however, a glowing tribute to the importance of British pop artist David Hockney, who almost single-handedly attempts a modern re-evaluation of the male nude.
Equating the cover illustration with the editor’s viewpoint, one could be forgiven for thinking that the entire contents would be based on the homo-erotic: Duggie Field’s males are well built with jock-straps. These discreet little cover-alls, combined with the fact that all Mr Field’s men are sans hands, feet and sometimes heads, certainly does enhance some elements of mystery in the male nude. Man, a finite unit, cursed with the mysteries of sex displayed on the “outside,” needs all the help he can get. And as any student of art knows, if you drop the hands, feet and head, it’s so much easier to draw the nude.
Many of the artists employ similar techniques to create that sense of mystery all we hommes lack. Kevin Whitney’s nude on Redondo Beach has clenched hands covering the rude bits. Figleaves don’t grow well in sand. R.B. Kitaj has painted an actor, “Richard,” from the nose to the knees. Graham Dean’s Steam Room sequence allows for a natural element of fogging of the face and feet. David Shaw resorts to the tricks of that old hand at the male nude, Salvador Dali, depicting a sprawling realistic male whose head is covered by Meccano.
It is interesting to note that a large number of female artists in this book offer equal attention to flesh and fabric. Anne Gilbert has one in singlet and socks (some men will never take them off) on the edge of the bed. Val Archer takes this one step further with Torso 2, in which she wraps up a male torso. Polly Hope sews fabric sculptures, where male nudes are just part of a large metaphysic.
Some men have attempted to place the male in domestic situations, and many of these provide some unintentional humour, such as nudes collecting letters or nudes in the Kitchen. One painter with the onomatopoeic name Diccon Swan has male nudes “mysteriously” looking out of windows, complete with that all-important accessory, the Rolex watch. I suppose the watch is still the symbol of manhood.
The most refreshing works are those that touch on the pleasure for the viewer of gazing into the infinite world of the painter. Sandra Fisher has painted her husband, R.B. Kitjai, in a traditional pose, nude on a bed, delivered with acute emotional force. The mystery here is the relationship between sitter and painter (and us voyeurs – the viewers). Mathew Carr has given names for the soft charcoal males in his paintings. Still, he has not provided telephone numbers, and Hockney’s work continues his visual diary of ‘My life as an avowed homosexual.’ His series of drawings entitled Waking Up, which describe his attempt to make love to a reluctant partner, are a combination of superb craftsmanship and erotica in the manner of the best of Picasso’s Vollard Suite. They are the best images in the book.
There is little genuinely overt sexuality, except for Delmas Howe’s men, who lumber around the rodeos like Greek gods stranded in Texas. Considering that the curator has included the work of Duncan Grant, who died in 1978, it is staggering that he excluded the nudes of Stanley Spencer and Lucien Freud. The book is in no way complete, for Chilean artist, Juan Davila isn’t included, yet has devoted almost his entire output to expanding our awareness of the place of the male body in art. His omission is a serious loss to the collection.
So the modern view of the male nude espoused is an opposite one, concerned on the one hand with the male as an ethereal sensitive creature, and on the other, as a predictable image of the primitive force. So if you’re built like Charles Atlas, wear a wristwatch at all times and still wear singlets, consider a career as a male nude – go straight into modelling.