Naked Men Exhibition Sparks A Return To The Fig Leaf

The Leopold Museum in Vienna has sparked controversy with its latest exhibition “Naked Men” on show from October 2012 until January 2013. Posters for the show scattered around Vienna have been covered up with red gaffer tape and some near schools have been removed altogether.

The display includes masterpieces from ancient Greece to the present, showing the male body in all of its glory. Nude women are more commonly depicted in fine arts and many exhibitions have extensively explored this topic. But the male nude for many underlying reasons have been neglected up until now. The show at the Leopold Museum: Includes works by well known artists spanning  the period from the Enlightenment in the 18th century until the present, supplemented by important reference works from ancient Egypt, Greek vase painting and works from the Renaissance. The presentation will show different artistic approaches to the subject, competing ideas of the ideal male model as well as changes in the concept of beauty, body image and values. Beginning with Ancient Greece as a standard and a pretense for later sexually explicit images, the exhibition then addresses the depiction of bathing men at the end of the 19th century.  Another focus is on the nude self-portraits of the Expressionists Egon Schiele and Richard Gerstl as well as the change in the perception of naked men after 1945. On display are works by Albrecht Dürer, Peter Paul Rubens, Paul Cézanne, Auguste Rodin, Gustav Klimt, Edvard Munch, Giovanni Giacometti, Egon Schiele, Maria Lassnig, Andy Warhol, Alfred Hrdlicka, Günter Brus, Robert Mapplethorpe, Keith Haring, Heimo Zobernig and others.

Ever since the Renaissance, the nude male body was considered to be an integral to study and an indispensible part of the academies’ curriculum. This was the main reason that women were denied access to art academies. This exhibition presents insights into the life drawing sessions of European art academies, from the Baroque period onwards and illustrates to what an extent all eyes were focused on the naked man, though he himself was the only one to remain naked. For centuries, the depiction of the male nude was only legitimised by classical art. These restrictions prompted the emergence of various artistic strategies that reinterpreted ancient ideals under the guise of antiquity. This is shown in the exhibition with examples from the period around 1800 up until the present.

At the turn of the century, Klimt believed that nakedness and truth coincided in the Nuda Veritas, Egon Schiele began to make his own body the object of his paintings. Expressionism brought with it a radical examination of the self, which saw the artists exposing themselves both physically and existentially and exploring the use of their own nudity as a sphere of political influence. The battle of female desire and male denial is not often addressed in the visual arts, but it has its historical sources both in the biblical story of Joseph and the wife of Potiphar and in the ancient mythological traditions of Narcissus and Adonis. The emancipation of women as artists has brought with it a new basis for the depiction of such conflicts. Nowadays, female artists also have access to male nude models and are free to interpret and depict this motif at their will, currently often with a view to deconstructing gender and gender asymmetries. In the second half of the 19th century depictions of naked people in nature abounded. These renderings had their origin in a reassessment of man’s position in nature. Based on early depictions such as Dürer’s The Men’s Bath, the exhibition features many eminent examples of such encounters and get-togethers of naked men, from Cézanne to Mapplethorpe.

The exhibition unites examples of many different genres, including painting, sculpture, graphic arts, photography and new media, with special emphases on celebrating the beauty of the male form.

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