The male gaze

"Did a nude male model pose for students in your art class?" Piyul Mukherjee, my friend and reader, enquired. I had to admit in the negative. My mind's eye went back to Satish, who'd model standing on a pedestal wearing a pair of thin, loose shorts. Our Kolkata art college professor used to admonish him to adjust them properly so we could see nothing more. But women models were unclothed. I was explaining to Piyul that as an artist drawing a nude woman with all her curves and beauty was more interesting; men's straight lines were no challenge. "That's a male outlook. If women get a chance to draw a nude male, they may find different lines from a woman's perspective." Her observation was surely profound. This too is a man driven decision that art schools draw female bodies. It's never occurred to us to question why the male sex organ is a no-no. Male chauvinistic attitude in the art world tormented the incredibly great sculptress Camille Claudel I wrote about ( /0). She ended up in a mental asylum till her death in 1943.

Curiously though, Michelangelo's fantastic 17 feet David, the archetype of all sculpture, has been openly baring male genitalia since the 15th century in Florence, Italy. But ironically just next door, the Vatican is prudish. Various Catholic Church Popes, across 450 years, have battled against the phallic symbol. Slowly but surely they've removed the genitals from valuable ancient Vatican statues in the name of preserving male modesty. Marble, plaster and metal fig leaves started appearing to cover up hacked body parts. In the 19th century, male statues not yet severed were destroyed because they "constituted grave threat to the faithful". Today, every male statue you'll see in this 2000-year-old papacy is castrated.

It's interesting to reflect on men's mania over female erotica, very rarely have they painted nude men. Edouard Manet's famed 1863 painting Luncheon on the Grass has two well-dressed men sitting in front of a nude woman. In French artist Gustave Courbet's 1855 painting, The Painter's Studio, you'll find a nude woman posing as a model among many fully clothed people. He later painted Origin of the World (1866), an in-the-face close-up of female genitals. Hungarian collector Baron Ferenc Hatvany bought the painting in 1910, Soviet troops in WW II stole it, he ransomed it back and when emigrating to Paris he was allowed only one artwork, he took this. It sold for 1.5 million francs in 1955. When the new owner died in 1981, this painting was transferred to Musée d'Orsay gallery in lieu of his unpaid family taxes. It's quite telling that we don't see such captivated interest in paintings of male genitals.

... contd.

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