Catching Up vs. Ignoring the Precedents
[W]hy are there so few stripped-down males, their charms unveiled by women for the delectation of women? While there is no one answer, some artists say that men’s bodies are less esthetically pleasing; others suggest that women need to take back the female body, not colonize or promote those of men. Women—in fact most viewers—still have difficulty scrutinizing male genitalia, or, conversely, men resist being scrutinized by women as subjects. It might make them feel too vulnerable, and that raises a question: Does the mere fact of being depicted naked feminize the male body?Among the few female artists Lilly finds who have painted male nudes, they tend to fall into two categories: non-sexual portrayals of nude men or (and this is the category I want to consider a bit more) images that heavily reference previous works by male artists depicting female nudes. For example,
Referencing earlier compositions is a fine tradition in representational painting, but in this context, where as Lilly points out there's not been much work by female artists of sexualized male nudes, I have to wonder whether catching up (so that there exist enough referring counterparts to the existing female nudes by male artists that the issue is moot) is as interesting an idea as perhaps taking advantage of the pluralistic era clean-slate available to simply ignore the canon intentionally and simply paint what you (as a female artist) find beautiful about the male body.
Women artists have more directly tackled the art-historical notion of the male gaze, turning it on its head. Now in her mid-90s [sadly she just recently passed away], Sylvia Sleigh has been undressing her male subjects for decades. The model in Philip Golub Reclining (1971) looks into a large mirror in which the artist at work is also reflected. It appears to be an amalgam of two Velázquez paintings: the Rokeby Venus, one of the most seductive nude female backs in the history of art, and his masterpiece Las Meninas, in which the artist is shown as he paints the scene before us. A more recent work, from 2006, portrays a nude young man sitting in an Eames chair clutching the armrests. The work, featured in P.S. 1’s “Greater New York” exhibition earlier this year, suggests a provocative interpretation of another Velázquez, his canny portrait of Pope Innocent X.
Working in a similar vein, Ellen Altfest is noted for her meticulously detailed, trompe l’oeil paintings of quirky subjects as well as her sly, subtly charged portraits of male nudes that parody the male gaze. Some she presents with eyes closed, arms behind their heads, legs apart, mimicking a classic female nude pose. Penis (2006), an anatomically correct, crisply drawn close-up of the body part, offers an upending of Gustave Courbet’s Origin of the World (1866), an unblinking look at the male phallus that is both real and theatrical, perversely clinical but with an undertone of heat, appealing to the voyeur—and exhibitionist—in all of us.
Wei hints at what might be the stumbling block to that option:
Why does so much sublimation and unease surround these descriptions of the male body, once considered the ideal of beauty?I'd say it's a mix of homophobia and the systematic suppression of female sexual desire (with a touch of patriarchy in the arts), but that's just a guess.
But now that we're arguable past a good deal of all that or at least able to call it openly what it is, what's to stop women artists from eschewing the precedents (and in doing so, arguably not hiding behind art history) and showing us what they find truly beautiful in a man's body? Sure you're gonna make your grandma blush, but...be bold. The societal conditions have never been more accommodating.