Left, Pierre & Gilles, The Death of Adonis, 1999 from The Naked Man exhibition and right, Pierre & Gilles, Vive la France, 2006 from The Nude Man exhibition
This Spring I saw The Nude Man at the Leopold Museum in Vienna, The Naked Man at the Ludwig Museum in Budapest, and also an exhibition, Orange Human, featuring male nudes by Slovakian artist Svätopluk Mikyta at Deàk Erika gallery in Budapest. At least for me this Spring, the preponderance of female nudes traditionally shown in art has been fully counterbalanced.
The Nude Man dealt with the history of the male nude in art since 1800. The Naked Man concerns itself with contemporary representations of the male body, explored thematically in ways that overlapped with and expanded on The Nude Man exhibition. Some works and artists made appearances in both shows; for example, Katarzyna Kozyra’s video installation The Men’s Bathhouse, filmed surreptitiously here in Budapest, was shown in both places. It was not intentional to have two such similar shows at the same time, so perhaps the coincidence suggests a growing interest in themes and dialectics around the male body.
The male gaze has been much discussed in terms of the female nude, and these shows present an opportunity to consider how the male gaze treats itself and also how the female gaze looks at the male body. Questioning how female versus male nudes are presented, both exhibitions also featured photographs from Croatian artist Tomislav Gotovac’s 2002 ‘Foxy Mister’ series and works by Gilbert and George.
The exhibition at the Ludwig in Budapest, however, perhaps because it was freed from a linear art historical narrative, could deal more interestingly in a thematic approach with the more complicated relations to the body. Anxiety around the aesthetic of the body–whether in conformity or rebellion, and the freedom and vulnerability of the naked body as well as it’s relation to pain is considered. I found some of the body art difficult to watch. Problematizing the relationship to the male body was American artist Paul McCarthy’s Rocky, a 1976 video where the artist in boxing gloves is hitting himself in the head, which is not far from the Image Whipping photograph of Hungarian artist Tibor Hajas, documenting extreme bound and hung postures, just a room over from a video of one of Stelarc’s body suspension performances, in which his body is hung at different points from multiple meat hooks.
Both these museum exhibitions featured early photography documenting the male nude in an artistic or athletic context: think Eadweard Muybridge‘s explorations of motion in the shot-by-shot documentation of a man ascending a staircase, for example, or two men boxing. These photos often hearken back to an athletic Greco-Roman ideal of the male form that was, in the region, reinforced later as the ideal of strength and beauty in Social Realist style. Svätopluk Mikyta, in the ‘over-drawings’ on view at Deàk Erika Gallery, begins with these innocent, athletic depictions of male nudes taken from antique books. Starting from found images, the artist overdraws, commenting on these naked idyllic male images. This latest series, Orange Human, on one hand puts the perfect man on a pedestal by displaying them and on the other tints their skin from the original black-and-white image to create a new, superhuman race.
From Greco-Roman ideal, to tortured anxiety, to this new Futurist race of male beings, the male body has recently been presented in such varied ways, altogether offering a surprisingly rich counterpoint from the relatively unexplored gender.