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The wayward gaze

Jean-Baptiste Frédéric Desmarais’ “Le Berger Paris” (1787, oil on linen, National Gallery of Canada), part of “Masculin/Masculin.”

Jean-Baptiste Frédéric Desmarais’ “Le Berger Paris” (1787, oil on linen, National Gallery of Canada), part of “Masculin/Masculin.”

The clock is ticking down not only on 2013 but on an exhibit that caused a stir when it bowed in Paris this past fall. Indeed, it was the talk of the fashion shows there.

“Masculin/Masculin: Ouvrage Collectif,” at the Musée d’Orsay through Jan. 2, considers the male nude in various media from 1800 to the present. It was organized in collaboration with the Leopold Museum in Vienna, which presented its show, “Nude Men,” in the fall and winter of 2012-13.

While both exhibits contain overlapping works, they are different in tone as each has played to the strengths of its respective museum and country. The Leopold show, reflecting an institution rich in the works of Egon Schiele, was more expressive, almost neurotically so, in its depiction of male nudity; the Musée d’Orsay show, cooler, more formal in its ravishing neoclassical (turn-of the-19th-century) offerings. (Or so it seems to me after pouring over – no, devouring -- the catalogs only. I purchased “Nude Men,” published by Hirmer, at a Barnes & Noble. I’m grateful to Flammarion, publisher of “Masculin/Masculin,” for providing me with a copy of the catalog for that show.)

But both shows consider the same questions, not the least of which is, Why does the male nude unsettle us so? Indeed, both catalogs open with an amusing anecdote of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London commissioning a fig leaf for its replica of Michelangelo’s “David,” whose full monty apparently had a disturbing effect on Queen Victoria, bless her. Perhaps like Her Majesty, I prefer to keep my gaze above the Mason/Dixon line, so to speak, particularly for realistic, photographic male nudes. (I have no such trouble with paintings and sculpture.)

Now why should this be? Am I a closet Victorian? It’s impossible to answer these questions without understanding the extent to which we are inculcated with the idea of the female as culture’s primary sex symbol. And what is the female nude? She is supine, passive, her floral genitalia mostly hidden but offered nonetheless, along with the rest of her, for the viewer’s gaze, which has often meant a male gaze.

And what of the male nude? He is active, erect metaphorically if not actually, ready to strike with some phallic symbol or the genitalia that is out there for all the world to see. He threatens and that’s part of the reason that photographic or photo-realistic male nudes make some people (like me) uncomfortable. Sculpture and painting render him less real and thus more approachable, his genitalia shadowy or concealed tantalizingly beneath some fabric or considered delicately. (The ancient Greeks thought large penises were vulgar.)

So the male nude unsettles, in part because he will not be denied. But he also disturbs, because we’re not used to thinking of men as objects – tamed and framed, encased in bronze or stone, offered not for male delectation, at least not for heterosexual male delectation, but for the “wayward gaze” of women and gay men.

Because it contains so many neoclassical paintings and sculptures, the Musée d’Orsay show in particular brims with works in which men are glorious objects, whether they’re about to conquer the world or presented in the languid pose of females. Among the greatest of the latter is Anne-Louis Girodet’s “Le Sommeil d’Endymion” (“The Sleep of Endymion” (1791), in which the somnambulant beauty rests eternally, one arm thrown over his head in classic female style, unwittingly awaiting a nocturnal visit from Selene, goddess of the moon. Here she is portrayed as a mist of ghostly light that streams through the branches that a leering Eros (Cupid) parts, caressing the unaware youth.

Anne-Louis Girodet’s “Le Sommeil d’Endymion” (1791, oil on linen, Musée Girodet), part of “Masculin/Masculin” at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris through Jan. 2.

Anne-Louis Girodet’s “Le Sommeil d’Endymion” (1791, oil on linen, Musée Girodet), part of “Masculin/Masculin” at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris through Jan. 2.

It’s a complete gender reversal – the predatory female, the vulnerable male – so much so that when it was presented at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan in 2006 as part of a Girodet retrospective it took both my gay and straight male friends aback. And that shock lies in the pose that says to women and gay men, “I’m here for your pleasure. Take me.” (See also in the “Masculin/Masculin” catalog Cecil Beaton’s 1932 photograph of Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan, stretched out on a sandy set, clad only in a loincloth. It’s the same arresting pose. The only difference is that Weissmuller looks at the camera – the moon to his Endymion – aware that he’s a beauty being sacrificed to the photographer’s lens and the iewer’s gaze.

Such works raise another question, Are men the superior sex symbols? The art historian Abigail Solomon-Godeau, author of “Male Trouble: A Crisis in Representation” (Thames and Hudson, 1997), would argue that until the mid-19th century and the rise of the bourgeoisie, men were the primary sex symbols in art. And Bart Bland, curator of exhibitions at the Hudson River Museum in Yonkers, would counter that you can walk through any museum and survey room after room of male and female nudes.

So it’s hard to say if men were once the primary sex symbols in art. But are they the better sex symbols? Ah, that’s a different question that I would answer with a resounding “yes.” Male bodies have what Greg Wyatt – sculptor-in-residence at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Manhattan and director of the Academy of Art at the Newington-Cropsey Foundation in Hastings-on-Hudson – calls more “points of entry.” 

In “Masculin/Masculin,” consider the way the torso connects to the legs in Duane Michals’ 1982 photograph “Le Plus Belle Partie du corps d’un homme” (“The Most Beautiful Part of a Man’s Body”), two deep ravines forming the sides of a triangle leading the eye to the unseen vertex of desire. (The sculptor Betsy Podlach recently told me that this is one of her favorite parts of the male body.)

Or consider Man Ray’s 1935 photograph “Bras (Arm),” with its creamy dunes of shoulder and bicep sheltering wisps of underarm hair – an erotic fixation among the gay lovers in my forthcoming novel, “Water Music.” Or the parted, exquisitely molded buttocks of George Raphael Donner’s twisting river god Traun, which adorns the Providentia Fountain on the Neuer Markt in Vienna and was featured in the Leopold Museum show.

There’s a thrill in the male body, with its more delineated musculature, that you don’t find in the more sweeping curves of the female body. I remember remarking on such to a young woman once.

“Gosh, you’re really extremely heterosexual,” she said, with the same disapproving tone that I imagine Serge Diaghilev using to describe the ballerina-obsessed George Balanchine as “hopelessly heterosexual.”

Or maybe I’m “a gay man trapped in a woman’s body,” as a gay friend once said.

Or perhaps I’m really just a person who prefers the wayward gaze – the viewpoint that’s not often taken.

Alexander Cabanel’s “L’Ange Déchu” (“Fallen Angel”) (1847, oil on linen, Musée Fabre), part of “Masculin/Masculin.”

Alexander Cabanel’s “L’Ange Déchu” (“Fallen Angel”) (1847, oil on linen, Musée Fabre), part of “Masculin/Masculin.”