Classical nudes: The not-so-obscure objects of our desire

  Naked Aphrodite or “Lely’s Venus,” marble Roman copy of Greek original, second century, British Museum.

Naked Aphrodite or “Lely’s Venus,” marble Roman copy of Greek original, second century, British Museum.

This has been a big year for the classical nude. But then again, when is it not?

From the moment the Renaissance uncovered Roman copies of sculptures of ancient Greek gods and goddesses, heroes and heroines, the nude has defined our highest aspirations for the body, from the art of Donatello and Michelangelo to the neoclassical works of turn-of-the-19th century Paris to the highly formal, erotically charged photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe, just to name a few.

“Not only is it the longest lasting, most influential visual form for representing the human body up to the present day, but it has also become so powerfully naturalized as merely ‘the nude’ that we have often lost the ability to see it as a specific historical type, with a particular history, geography and canon,” curator Jonathan David Katz wrote in the catalog for “Classical Nudes and the Making of Queer History,” at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art in Manhattan last fall.

  Discobolus by Myron, marble Roman copy of fifth century B.C. Greek bronze, British Museum.

Discobolus by Myron, marble Roman copy of fifth century B.C. Greek bronze, British Museum.

“Yet the history of this most visible of all art forms is intimately intertwined with the history of one of the least visible – the history and iconography of same-sex desire,” he continues. “For many centuries now, certain men and women have scoured this most respectable of aesthetic types for secret signs that speak of them to them.”

Indeed, in my forthcoming novel “The Penalty for Holding” – the second in my series “The Games Men Play” – teenage quarterback Quinn Novak subsumes his budding homosexuality in the homoerotic works of ancient Greece, particularly the representations of Achilles and his great descendant, Alexander.

I based this on the ancient Greeks being my own introduction to sex, for which I’m eternally grateful.

But Quinn and I aren’t the first and we won’t be the last to savor the physicality of the ancient Greeks. The classical nude as respectable entrée to sex – the Apollo Belvedere is in the Vatican Museums, for God’s sake – is no doubt in part why art lovers have flocked to Tullio Lombardo’s resurrected sculpture of Adam at The Metropolitan Museum of Art – a work that owes more to that Apollo than it does to the ancient Israelites – along with “Defining Beauty: The Body in Ancient Greek Art,” through July 5 at the British Museum, and “Power and Pathos: Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World,” July 28 to Nov. 1 at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles and Dec. 6 to March 20 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.

So pervasive is the influence of the classical nude that it is used in the catalogs of such contemporary furniture companies as BoConcept and Restoration Hardware. They may be far from ancient Greece, but the message is clear. Classical sculpture equals classic (albeit modern) furnishings.

But as these marketing campaigns suggest, there is a disconnect between the classical nude and our understanding of it.

The ancient Greeks believed in moderation in all things: “Nothing in excess,” they said. Their ideal bodies were neither runway model-thin nor porno-star big. The males were fit, falling into one of two categories – Apollonian sleek or Herculean muscular. The Aphrodites (as well as other goddesses and heroines) had the rounded breasts, bellies and buttocks and pear shapes that most women have (and that few contemporary women seem to want).

“You’re given both the naked and the nude here,” New York Times’ critic Alastair Macaulay wrote in his May 18 review of the British Museum’s “Defining Beauty," "the unclothed body in some cases guarded and defensive, in others gloriously free of shame.”

I don’t agree. All classical nudity is nudity as defined by the great art historian Kenneth Clark in his book “The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form.” None of it is nakedness. To be nude is to perform. To be naked is to be everyday. The guardedness and shame depicted in the arts is nevertheless a depiction. It’s not real.

That’s why pornography can’t be art. It’s not about nudity, theatricality, illusion. It’s about being naked and actually having sex.

Where’s the art in that?