Gods among us: Male beauty and ‘Dieux du Stade’

What would Abigail Solomon-Godeau make of “Dieux du Stade,” the new book by photographer Fred Goudon, inspired by the “Dieux du Stade” calendars featuring members of the Stade Français Paris rugby club and athletes from other disciplines?

In her 1997 book “Male Trouble: A Crisis in Representation” (Thames and Hudson), the feminist art historian suggests that the nude male has been the primary sex symbol throughout art history, reaching an apotheosis in Neoclassical (turn-of-the-19th-century) Paris in the work of such artists as David, Ingres and especially Girodet, who often portrayed their subjects in the languid pose of women offered up for the male gaze.

It’s a provocative thesis that has been shot down by any number of art historians – including Bartholomew F. Bland, deputy director of the Hudson River Museum in Yonkers, N.Y. – who’ve noted that you can find male and female nudes in any art historical period.

But to the extent that the male nude has been offered up for the male and female gaze, he has been presented since ancient Greece at least in the heroic, athletic mode of the history painting. Think Achilles, Alexander, even Jesus. (The female nude has needed no such active excuse, the exceptions being the female athletes of ancient Sparta; Artemis/Diana, goddess of the hunt; and the female athletes who pose for ESPN’s annual Body Issue.)

These exceptions nevertheless prove the point that for a man to be nude, he must be considered in the context of something epic, even if he’s really doing nothing more than just standing there.

Which brings us back to “Dieux du Stade” (teNeues Publishing, 144 pages, 54 and 82 duotone photographs). These rippling stadium gods aren’t doing anything particularly athletic, even when they appear in locker- and shower-room settings or with various kinds of balls strategically positioned. Their stade cred is rather an excuse for some thoroughly sensuous photographs that for me at least suggest the superiority of male beauty with its high chests, six packs, tapered groins, long legs, lush hair, chiseled faces and direct self-containment.

The irony is that for all the activity of their profession and their gender, these men don’t have to do anything but stand, sit or lie there, looking good.