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Home » ART[icle]S, Sex Issue

Sex Issue: The Male Nude – A Declining Subject in Art

Submitted by on November 23, 2012 – 12:16 pmNo Comment

 

Three Bathers II by Cornelius McCarthy (gouache).

In the 80s the artists group Guerrilla Girls scattered New York with posters claiming that only 5 per cent of artists in the Metropolitan Museum were women but 83% of all nudes were female.

The number of female artists has increased since then but most nudes in modern art are still women. It doesn’t stop at museums: our entire visual culture, be it advertising, paintings or films, is focused if not obsessed with the naked female body.

While the UK didn’t see a major problem in bare female breasts in the best-selling paper until recently, an exhibition poster for a museum in Vienna showing three naked men full-frontal has caused a public outcry. A common perception is that the female body is more beautiful than the male but does the male body deserve its isolation? The ancient Greeks used to think that true beauty could only be found in the male body but in the modern world the male nude has recoiled into a niche in the art market with not more than four galleries and institutions exhibiting it worldwide.

Stewart Hardman, the owner of Adonis Art Gallery has been in the business for 18 years: “It is a very small market. Women and straight men like to come in and look at the paintings but they rarely buy them.” The Adonis Gallery serves a mostly gay clientele of collectors from all over the world. Without the internet, which accounts for 70% of all sales now, the gallery would probably not survive. Stewart Hardman speaks of a stigma on the male nude “Straight men don’t buy because they don’t want to give the wrong impression and even a lot of homosexuals shy away from collecting male nudes because they don’t want to draw attention to their sexual orientation.” In the beginning Hardman hoped that there would be a market among confident businesswomen, but there hasn’t been any real interest to appreciate the beauty of the opposite sex in a painting.

Most of Hardman’s painters are homosexual themselves with only few woman artists painting the male form. Hardman sees a difference in the female and male eye, when painting male bodies: “Women are more honest. They paint fine wrinkles and the soft parts while male painters tend to idealise”. The stigma of the male nude is hard to overcome, not only for buyers but also for painters. Cornelius McCarthy’s depictions of male nudes have never made it into major collections of art despite his artistic talent and his choice of genre is likely to be the reason for it.

Freud’s theories probably mark the beginning of the end of the male nude in art, at least for Britain. Up until the 19th century nude men could be found in a range of paintings. Henry Scott Tucke was famous for his paintings of adolescents. His paintings were seen as depictions of youth’s innocence and many collectors bought his works and they were part of public collections. With the arrival of Freud’s theories of sexuality, painting naked young men became a suspicious activity and Tucke’s paintings fell into disgrace.

Even though Freud’s theories of sexuality have been contested, the male nude never recovered. It’s not only a matter of male or female beauty, the entire genre of figurative paintings is in decline. Hardman said: “There are now so many ways of expression in art and things just move on”. A stroll through the contemporary art galleries confirms this notion. Artists today prefer to use multi-material installations, sculptures or performance art to convey their perception of the world. There will always be an interest in the human body but as things are at the moment men will have to rely on their girlfriend’s or boyfriend’s compliments for appreciation of their bodies as the female nude is likely to stay in the limelight for the time being.

 

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