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arts

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Subjects of the Visual Arts: Nude Males  
 
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Although prohibitions against homosexual acts were still rigorously enforced, Giovanni Antonio Bazzi (1477-1549) boldly chose to be called by the nickname "Il Sodoma" (the ). His numerous paintings of nude martyred saints (such as Saint Sebastian, 1542) evoke both the sensual beauties of the male body and the physical and verbal abuse that his public stance "provoked."

Renaissance artists generally depended upon the requirements of mythological and religious subjects to justify the inclusion of nude figures. However, the prominent German artist Albrecht Dürer portrayed naked men provocatively gazing at one another in the contemporary setting of the Bathhouse (woodcut, 1496); he emphasized the sexual implications of the scene by placing a cock (rooster) on top of the large faucet that projected in front of one of the figures.

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The most famous of all Renaissance artists, Michelangelo utilized the nude male figure to represent the highest ideals of his culture: whether political, as in the case of David (1504), a symbol of the Republic of Florence, or spiritual, as in the case of the Risen Christ (1516). Their sensual beauty so disconcerted many contemporary viewers that their genitals were concealed (in opposition to the will of the artist) a few years after their completion.

In contrast to Il Sodoma, Michelangelo fully absorbed Catholic proscriptions against same-sex intimacy, and his diaries and letters reveal that he suffered from profound guilt because of his love for other men. He revealed his conflicting feelings about his sexual desires in a pair of drawings in made in 1533 for his beloved Tomasso Cavalieri: Ganymede, which depicts the beautiful, nude adolescent being carried up to heaven by an embracing eagle, and Tityos, which shows an eagle eating the intestines of a very similar figure.

At the beginning of the seventeenth century, Caravaggio, who boldly flaunted his attraction to other men, created numerous homoerotic works, including provocative variations upon famous representations of nude figures by Michelangelo. For instance, his Love Triumphant (1602), based upon an allegorical statue of Victory by Michelangelo (1530s), shows a naturalistically depicted street youth trampling on symbols of human achievement.

Caravaggio's overt challenge to constrictive moral standards was not continued by later artists during the Baroque era, when both artists and their works increasingly were expected to conform to heterosexual "norms." However, Guido Reni's Saint Sebastian (1615) eloquently reveals that nude figures, required by certain devotional and mythological subjects, could be infused with a languid and subtly subversive sexuality.

At the same time that Catholic and Protestant reform movements were seeking to restrict both nudity and homoeroticism in European art, Japan witnessed a remarkable flourishing of sexually explicit art, which was avidly collected by the prosperous middle classes. Many famous and popular artists depicted scenes of lovemaking in the male and female brothels legalized throughout the reign of the Tokugawa dynasty (1603-1868).

Only a relatively small percentage of the many hundreds of scenes of male prostitutes and their clients depict full nudity; Yoshida Hanbei's A Sexually Excited Male Prostitute with a Client (woodblock print, 1705) and the anonymous Sexually Aroused Men Kissing (woodblock print, mid-18th century) are among those that do.

More typically, as in Nishikawa Sukenobu's Customer with Boy Prostitute (scroll painting, early 18th century), the figures were shown with some items of clothing to indicate social class and sexual roles. However, genitals and anus consistently were not only exposed, but also emphasized through enlargement, strong outlining, and other devices.

Nineteenth-Century Art

At the height of the French Revolution in 1791, sodomy among consenting adults was decriminalized, and the Napoleonic Code of 1804 reaffirmed the legalization of same-sex relations. Thus, it is not surprising that numerous prominent artists exhibited paintings of overtly homoerotic nudes at the Paris Salons in the early nineteenth century.

For example, the sinuously posed nude figures of Achilles and Patroclus establish a sensual mood in Ingres' Achilles Receiving the Ambassadors of Agamemnon (1801).

Hippolyte Flandrin's Figure d'Etude (1835), which depicts a youthful model with his head bent down onto his raised knees, freed the homoerotic subject from the requirements of a mythological or historical theme.

Because the pose conceals the genitals, rules of "propriety" were respected, and a reproduction of this painting (purchased for the Louvre by Napoleon III) could be displayed openly in one's home without fear of reprisal; the mountain setting also dignified Flandrin's work, by infusing it with the mood of the "sublime," so esteemed by the Romantic movement.

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