We’d all seen the posters around town and on the metro so last Sunday a few friends and I arranged to meet bright and early at the quay d’Orsay to go and see the autumn/winter exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay; Masculin/Masculin. L’homme nu dans l’art de 1800 a nos jours.
We braved the extremely long queue and once inside I decided to splash out on the Carte Blanche, the year long pass that guarantees unlimited entry to the Orsay’s and the Orangerie’s permanent collections and exhibitions, including skipping the line. For anyone planning on seeing more than one exhibition a year, it’s a steal at only €25 (€40 for the Duo option, allowing a visitor to join you.)
The exhibition itself wasn’t too busy. Maybe some shy away from gawping at naked men that early on a Sunday but not us. We bravely crossed the threshold into the expo after stowing away our prudishness along with our coats and umbrellas at the vestiaire. (Side note to the man working the coat check: I know it’s a miserable, rainy Sunday and you have to deal with incomprehensible, uncomprehending tourists all morning, but a smile and a bit of politesse wouldn’t go amis. That is your job.)
At the very beginning we were introduced to the central idea of the exhibition. This would be a collection art focusing solely on the male nude, rather than the ubiquitous feminine nude we see throughout the 19th and 20th century, especially in the permanent collection of the Musée d’Orsay. We were reminded of the difference between ‘nude’ and ‘naked’, in essence reminding us that this was art, not pornography or voyeurism. At least we hadn’t seen this as an opportunity to gaze at naked men, then!
The expo was set out by themes and each room contained a great mixture of art spanning the last couple of centuries, including painting, sculpture, and photography. There wasn’t really a focus on how the idea of the male nude has changed over the years, except for the revelation of the penis from behind its fig leaf or scabbard. We (un)covered religious and biblical themes, sporting bodies, mythological men, heroes, the male in nature, the dying man, and mainly the bodies were excruciatingly perfect, muscular and toned.
Right at the end there were two rooms next to each other. One explored the homoeroticism of mythology and young male bodies on the cusp of adulthood and exploration. The room next-door had a warning sign attached. The images in this room could insult the sensibilities of a young audience. I was a bit nervous before entering. What was I to find that could be more revealing than the rest of the expo? Pornographic images? Erect penises?
Actually it seemed to me and my friends that none of the images was more ‘hardcore’ than anything previous. However, it was art from the last century, mainly produced in America with its backdrop of puritanism, homophobia, and decorum. We saw photographs of naked men holding hands, paintings by Hockney. It seemed strange to us that the expo was presenting these pictures in the context of when they were created, rather than showing them for what they are and gently reminding us of that context.
Beforehand I had been expecting something deeper, a closer look at the role of the nude, and I saw it as an opportunity to see something different; the naked man instead of the naked woman. In society we are bombarded with the ‘perfect female form’ and are somewhat brainwashed into thinking that feminine is more beautiful than masculine, women should strive for beauty more than men. This was a great chance to see the beauty of the male, albeit in a one-dimensional, muscle-clad form, and I am glad we went.
I went in with a feminist perspective, the exhibition was turning convention on its head. I was soon brought back to reality however as we were informed early on of the reasoning behind most of these male portraits. Here human perfection, the pinnacle of strength, power and beauty can only be represented my the Male Nude. No place for a woman, not even a female artist.