The Guardian writes: “In 1995 the Pompidou Centre in Paris staged a show entitled Feminine-Masculine, the Sex of Art, devoted to artistic interpretations of heterosexuality in the 20th century. Now, Masculin/Masculin has opened at Musée d’Orsay, but contrary to what one might suppose it does not focus on artistic interpretations of male homosexuality, which is a pity. The topic, never addressed by museums, raises key political, moral, social and artistic issues. However, it does require a structured approach.
The show at the Pompidou Centre included references to the history of politics, social mores and ideas. Unfortunately, its successor is muddled, because it lacks any historical perspective, an absence that one of the curators, Guy Cogeval, defends as an asset, whereas it is merely a case of mistaken method. Mixing up several subjects without making any distinction between them and juxtaposing works with complete disregard for their particular features and the circumstances of their creation is not the best way to enlighten visitors. It is not enough to overwhelm them with a mass of art, quantity being no guarantee of quality. It does satisfy curiosity though, which is a result in itself.
The Musée d’Orsay exhibition boasts more than 200 paintings, sculptures and photographs that have two points in common: they depict naked men and date from the period between 1800 and the present day. To assemble such a large number, the best, most famous works being difficult to borrow, there is no option but to plug the gaps with minor masters. So we find Louis Vincent, Léon Pallière, Claude Marie Dubufe, Claude Ferdinand Gaillard and François Léon Bénouville rubbing shoulders with Gustave Moreau, Paul Cézanne and Egon Schiele, because they too painted naked men.
It is always good to look at little known paintings, even when they are competing for the title of the most ridiculous canvas. Here the award goes to Mort Pour La Patrie by Jean-Jules Antoine Leconte de Nouÿ. Before dying, the brave soldier insisted on revealing his white buttocks in the middle of the picture. The reason for this, at odds with the patriotic subject matter, is simple. In 1892 – indeed throughout the 19th century – the male nude was a compulsory exercise for pupils at art schools in France and the official Salons accepted it as such.
Had the exhibition taken a historical approach, it would have started by bringing together the works inspired by this system of values, instead of scattering them about. Le Sommeil d’Endymion, by Anne-Louis Girodet, which dates from 1791, thus finds itself in the last room, with a 1966 work by David Hockney.
It would also have been helpful to remind visitors that the male nude, setting aside any sexual considerations, was an essential part of the cult of classical antiquity, or Neoclassicism, of which Jacques-Louis David was the leading proponent during the revolution and first empire. The movement spread, then crystallised into Idealism. It drew its inspiration from the Renaissance in general, and from Michelangelo in particular. At its worst, it gave us Dubufe or Bénouville; at its best, Ingres, not represented, and Edward Burne-Jones.
During the second half of the 19th century these stylistic conventions persisted in the academicism of Jules Elie Delaunay or William Adolphe Bouguereau, and the unfortunate Lecomte du Noüy. They were also perpetuated in the laborious symbolism of Jean Delville. But at the same time, the male nude was carried forward by a wave of renewal driven by Impressionism and its subsequent developments: Frédéric Bazille, or Cézanne, but also Paul Gauguin – inexplicably absent, as are Henri Matisse and Pierre Bonnard, on the French side, and their German counterparts Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Erich Heckel.
In opposition to the pupils of the Ecoles des Beaux Arts, they associated male nudity with the break from the industrial world, with dreams of going back to nature and anti-classical references, with Greek art from before the fifth century AD, and of course with Africa and Oceania, both sources of large numbers of male statues. Of this there is no mention whatsoever.”