Changing Attitudes in the Flesh; Richard Edmonds Discovers the Role of the Male Nude in Art through the Centuries

The Birmingham Post (England), February 21, 2013 | Go to article overview

Changing Attitudes in the Flesh; Richard Edmonds Discovers the Role of the Male Nude in Art through the Centuries


Nude Men from 1800 to the present day Tobias G. Natter and Elisabeth Leopold (Hirmer: PS39.95) There was a time when the nude male lurked behind the long shadow of the fig leaf, nowadays naked males are everywhere.

From teenage rave-ups on Mediterranean hot spots ( where flashing your crown jewels in the street is rapidly becoming old hat) to prime-time movies such as Magic Mike, where Channing Tatum has no qualms about strutting his stuff along with his male stripper mates.

But really, it's about time men burned their fig leaves, since women burned their bras yonks ago.

And therefore as an arts journalist who would like to be thought progressive, I welcome this beautifully-produced and comprehensive study of the naked male figure (recently voted arts book of the year by a London newspaper) which ranges from ancient Greek sculpture to contemporary photography.

From Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel to the adventurous Egon Schiele, an artistic tearaway who flourished during the turn-of-the-last-century Vienna Seccession movement, and left nothing at all to the imagination where mono-sex pleasures were concerned.

But when Victoria ruled it was all very different. When she set her eyes on the V&A's copy of Michelangelo's David for the first time, the queen was deeply shocked at the absence of a fig leaf. It is a curious reaction from a woman who reputedly enjoyed being chased around the bedroom by Albert.

But the museum authorities sprang to attention and supplied a stone fig leaf which was clipped on when royals visited (an absurdity which continued until the demise of Queen Mary in 1953).

Nude males nowadays strut their stuff on beaches world-wide, they streak at football matches, pose naked as they slap on after shave lotion, and are the lifeblood of advertising which needs to arouse attention if a product is to sell.

And nude males certainly attract women, as Cosmopolitan discovered to its delight when it flashed a nude Burt Reynolds across its centrefold and caused a riot on newsstands worldwide.

The book begins in the Enlightenment, that period in the early 19th century when attention was focused on the power of reason and the classical ideal.

Photography began to use males as well as females in nude studies and Edward Muybridge whipped away posing pouches from his male models and photographed naked wrestlers in motion. As the century progressed, painters worked along the sea shores of Europe and produced splendid canvases of men bathing nude, where an absence of any kind of clothing drew man back to nature and primitivism.

A foremost artist in this genre was the British painter Henry Tuke, whose stunning canvas August Blue sums up the camaraderie of young men sailing and swimming in a summer sea, in those halcyon days before such boys grew up to become trench fodder in the First World War. …

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