The pleasure of looking at naked men



The exhibition entitled Nackte männer – Naked men that we announced when it opened has caused a lot of discussion in Vienna because of the male nakedness it shows. Not only has the exhibition focused on nudity, and what is more, nudity of men, but it has also made it visible in the city public spaces with the campaign organized to promote the exhibition. Posters with the photo by Pierre&Gilles entitled Vive la France (2006), showing three naked men of different races in a football pitch wearing only socks in the colours of the French flag and Mr. Big, an installation (2012) by Ilse Haider in the yard of the Museum Quartier, provoked a number of inhabitants of Vienna to write letters of protest and even threats to the city authorities and the organizer of the exhibition, the Leopold Museum. The result of such an open dialogue between the cultural institution and the inhabitants of Vienna, among them a large number of immigrants from many different cultures, ended with a compromising agreement that male genitals will be covered on most posters, and especially on those exhibited in parts of the city with mostly immigrant population. On locations where the museum did not do it, the offended citizens took the initiative and covered up the problematic parts, including scratching away the penis from one of the panels of Mr Big installation.


In spite of all the controversies, or precisely because of them, the general public showed a lot of interest in the exhibition that presented how male nakedness has been treated by artists since the late 18th century and it was extended by a month.


Nakedness from classical ideals to personal search for identity

Curators Tobbias G. Natter and Elisabeth Leopold organized the exhibition in three parts, preceded by a prologue that the visitors see upon entering the exhibition space. Although nakedness in art is usually understood to mean female nudes, the exhibition prologue shows five sculptures dating from ancient Egypt to present time, evidencing the presence of a male nude throughout the long history of western civilization.


The first part of the exhibition is entitled Classicism and Enlightenment, and its collection of paintings of men without clothes serves as an introduction, maybe superficial, to the discussion of issues that become fully visible only in the works dating from later periods. With the exception of one painting by Angelika Kauffmann, which does not even show a naked man but one fully dressed with a statue from antiquity shown in the background (1787), all other exhibits are works by men, who invoked the myths of the antiquity in order to redefine masculinity and to create new ideals of heroes for the industrial age. Complex and asymmetrical relationships between men and women, where the look and the power belong to a man, and exposure and obedience to a woman, were to a large extent defined in that same period, and should be given credit for the fact that such an exhibition is seen as problematic even today. Who is empowered to look, or to wield power in a society, can be clearly decoded from the painting by Martin Ferdinand Quadal: Nude painting sessions at the Vienna Academy St. Anna Gebäude (1789). In the painting, we see a group of men studying a male nude and reproducing it in a number of artistic techniques. Women did not have access to science and art at the time.


Moving towards the contemporary period, the second part of the exhibition is entitled Classical modernism. Everyday life became a topic of interest for artists and there were numerous paintings of naked men. For the curators, the key moment in modernism at the turn of the 19th and the 20th century was the shift of the look towards the artist’s own naked body. Own identity and sexuality became the topic of nude paintings – self portraits of artists such as Egon Schiele, Anton Koling and Richard Gerstl.


Political potential of a naked body after 1968

The prologue and the first two parts of the exhibition actually serve as introduction to its third part where the focus is on the political potential of a naked body and its relationship with persisting social problems. Feminism, resistance against social norms and gay movement are the topics covered under the title: Developments after 1945


The exhibition shows only male nude paintings, and it is through resistance and opposition against dominant cultural patterns that relationships of power, established in the long history of European art using female nude paintings as well, are made visible. The look and power that were the domain of men for centuries, started being questioned with the emergence of feminism. Taking over the right to look, putting themselves in the position of power and observing men, artists such as Louise Bourgeois with her work A girl (sweet version) (1999) or Katarzyna Kozyra with her video installation Men’s baths (1999) brought advancements to the culture of understanding gender.


In this period, and especially after 1968, a naked body, a male one in the case of this exhibition, was turned into a medium of the culture of protest and social activism. Nude – self portrait from the beginning of the 20th century turned into a subject of discussion about gender in this period. With his work Foxy Mister (2002) Tomislav Gotovac turned all the existing norms upside down. As a man and an artist who was granted the right to look, i.e. to play the role of an actor by the dominant social norms, Gotovac simultaneously put himself in the position of an object, taking on the passive role of women in sexy magazines. By questioning gender roles, Gotovac questioned all the other social norms as well.

Tom Gotovac

The issue of who is active and who is passive during observation, the issue of satisfaction and lust that are the result of observation, became even more complex with the emergence of the gay movement. Artists such as Jean Cocteau, David Hockney, Pierre&Gilles or Bruce Bellas, known as Bruce of Los Angeles radically changed the inherited norms of masculinity by introducing new patterns present in the exhibition in paintings showing intimacy between male couples.


Civilisation’s achievements

The last change in the way of looking ends the story of male nudity from 1800 until today. Although based on male nudity only, the exhibition does not contradict the thesis by Berger about the look as a means of control used by men. It is via the more recent works shown in the exhibition that oppose the dominant system exposing it as a cultural phenomenon that it is possible to seek balance, by means of gender, of the structures of looking. This very possibility of changing the inherited structures was certainly the motivation for the opponents of the exhibition. By examining who, when and where is entitled to the look and the pleasure that comes with it, the exhibition stresses some of the civilisation’s achievements in freeing physicality and sexuality and gender equality. That is why it is not surprising that curators and the museum management agreed to only a minimum of concessions their critics demanded and insisted on the exhibition’s increased visibility in the city both for the purpose of promotion and defence of the civilisation’s achievements gained.


There is no doubt that inhabitants of Vienna and their visitors have been enjoying the exhibition irrespective of their gender, sex and sexual orientation, because the museum is full of visitors although the exhibition opened more than 4 months ago, and numerous children and adults both young and old are having fun and taking photos with Mr Big, while there is also a lot of interest for nudists’ exhibition viewing, organized in the evening hours.