Phallic Fall: Male Nudes Get Due in Two Major Exhibitions

Nude portraiture is commonplace in the museum world -- at least when it comes to women. But two major exhibitions this autumn in Vienna and Linz, Austria, are aiming to offset some reverse gender discrimination by focusing on works that feature nude males instead. They are already becoming a magnet for controversy.

These days in Austria, men seem to be baring everything. The naked man is on display, and often from the front. They can be dirty, or disabled, weak, or wrinkly. The images are of the desired, and the desiring.

From antiquity to modern times, during many different eras, artists have been depicting men without their clothes. But the images of these bare bodies often end up in private collections or depositories. Most of the nudes lining the walls of museums are of women -- some 83 percent of them, according to the artists' group Guerrilla Girls, which studied the issue a few years ago. A major exhibition of the nude male? There has never been one -- until now.

Two Austrian museums are currently in the process of doing something unusual -- they are dedicating themselves to the naked man. Both chose to focus on the 20th century, when the nude no longer just represented the god, hero, thinker or guide, but rather normal human beings with vulnerable or old bodies. They can be anxious subjects, either as the object of lustful stares, or those whose erections betray their desires.

The Lentos Art Museum in Linz focuses on the timeframe after 1900, and organizes its exhibit thematically, not chronologically. Whether by Egon Schiele, Louise Bourgeois, Oskar Kokoschka or Elke Silvia Krystufek, Andy Warhol or Pierre et Gilles, all of the works are organized into sections called "Pose," "Age," "Penis" or "Pain."

The Leopold Museum in Vienna goes back a little further, with the accepted presentations of unclothed masculinity. In the classicism around 1800, the naked hero represented, especially in images of the French Revolution, the ideal of bourgeois emancipation.

The Return of the Male Nude

Over the course of that buttoned-up century, man had to keep his clothes on for a while before his body could again be free of its shirt, vest and coat. Paul Cezanne, Edvard Munch and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner then depicted bathers unclothed in nature.

The Leopold Museum possesses the trump card of having the most important collection of works by Egon Schiele worldwide. Between 1910 and 1913, the artist painted some radical nude self-portraits, which expose his vulnerable, distorted and also desiring body.

One man questions the concept of masculinity itself -- and that occupies the third part of the Leopold's exhibition. There is the fetish nature of Pierre Molinier, from around 1960. And Thomas Ruff's edited Internet photo of a clearly aroused gay couple. Or with the boys from the Austrian group, Gelatin, who, seem out of place in the seclusion of the mountains with their members exposed.

The Leopold only learned a week before the opening that, outside of the museum at least, showing a man nude below the waist, even in a non-erect state, is a no-go. The photo used on the exhibit's posters agitated the Viennese. With the title "Vive la France," the work by the artist duo Pierre et Gilles shows their favorite version of the French flag: Three footballers of different skin colors, dressed only from the knee down.

The grumblings over the nudes were presumably not inopportune, either. Stickers were later placed over the "Wiener Wursts," or Viennese sausages, as the Internet marketing site Horizont-Net described them. The message was, whoever wants to see "everything," has to first come to the museum -- a further marketing coup for the Leopold. The image was also pixelated on Facebook.

Museums Appear To Be Clashing over Idea

One might quickly conclude that the timing of the almost simultaneous exhibitions on male nudes suggests some kind of gender equality initiative on the part of the museums. But there's nothing to that theory. In January, the Lentos and Leopold museums got into a dispute over the planned nudes shows, with the director of the Linz institution accusing the Viennese of stealing her museum's idea.

Now that both exhibits are on, the museums are ignoring each another. There are no efforts to jointly market the shows and the catalogues don't offer a single reference to the other show.

So it is little wonder that several artists are being shown in both museums -- or that sometimes even the same work is being displayed, such as the video installation by Polish artist Katarzyna Kozyra, who used a hidden camera to film at a men's swimming pool in Budapest. Another example is a photography series by Tomislav Gotovac. The concept and performance artist poses on a plush mat unclothed in what are normally female pin-up positions -- only this time they are of an older man with a white beard, age spots and flaccid body parts.

One wonders why two Austrian museums are the first to take on the subject. Not Berlin or Paris. Maybe because in the Catholic, Alpine nation vigorous men like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Felix Baumgartner have always been appealing. And at the other extreme, in the city of Freud, the counter-images, like those by Schiele or the self-deformations of the Viennese Actionists, were especially radical exercises.

"Nackte Männer. Von 1800 bis heute," or "Nude Men. From 1800 to the Present Day," runs from now until Jan. 28 at the Leopold Museum in Vienna. And "Der nackte Mann," or "The Naked Man," opens Oct. 26 and continues until Feb. 17 at the Lentos Kunstmuseum in Linz.

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