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arts

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Subjects of the Visual Arts: Nude Males  
 
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This painting quickly became a widely recognized and enduring symbol of same-sex desire; it continues to be referenced in innumerable ads directed to the gay community (for causes ranging from AIDS prevention to ocean cruises). The many later variations of Flandrin's famous composition include Robert Mapplethorpe's Ajitto (1981), which depicts an African-American model with an erect penis.

Despite Flandrin's example, most nineteenth-century artists depended on classical themes to "justify" sensual depictions of nude male figures. Thus, for example, Jean Delville's School of Plato (1898) depicts the ancient philosopher surrounded by languidly posed, nude youths; Delville's androgynous conception of the nude was characteristic of many of the artists associated with the Aesthetic Movement of the late nineteenth century.

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Among adherents of this style, Simeon Solomon is particularly noteworthy because he raised complex personal and social issues through his treatments of such subjects as Bridegroom and Sad Love (1865); this painting represents a nude youth dispassionately kissing the forehead of his bride while he fondles the genitals of the sorrowful adult Cupid standing alongside him.

Such powerful treatments of the problems affecting same-sex love in modern Britain caused Solomon to be ostracized by many other artists, even before his career was cut short by the scandal surrounding his arrest in 1873 for soliciting sex in a London public toilet.

The new medium of photography was exploited by artists seeking to record the beauties of the male figure. Settling in Taormina, Sicily in the 1880s, the German baron Wihelm von Gloeden devoted himself to photographing local youths, posed nude with garlands and other classical attributes. Justifying his project by the goal of recreating the splendors of the ancient world, he established a successful mail-order business, selling his works to wealthy men throughout Europe and the Americas.

The American painter Thomas Eakins also recorded the appearance of nude youths in numerous photographs, which he intended as preparatory studies for such paintings as The Swimming Hole (1885). Inspired by Walt Whitman's glorification of the common man, Eakins sought to create naturalistic, distinctly American images of heroic, nude male figures.

Twentieth-Century Art

In the first decades of the twentieth century, well-known artists began to create more sexually explicit and accurate images of the lifestyles of men in the nascent "gay" subculture. For instance, in the late 1910s, the American painter Charles Demuth created several watercolors of men engaged in sexual play in New York bathhouses; he restricted the circulation of these works, giving them as gifts to close friends.

Later in the century, George Platt Lynes, a prominent fashion photographer, created elegantly posed, intensely erotic photographs of men (such as Nude Man, 1932) for a carefully screened and discreet wealthy clientele. A friend of his, painter Paul Cadmus boldly created for public display monumental paintings depicting the lives of urban gay men; these included numerous paintings of nudes, such as Horseplay (1935) and The Bath (1951).

Deliberately positioning himself outside the mainstream art world, the prolific Tom of Finland (Touko Laaksonen), created countless drawings of nude working class men, joyfully engaging in S&M sexual play. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, he informally circulated his images through "underground" networks, based in European gay bars.

The subsequent publication of his images in magazines catering to the emerging gay "market" helped to make them widely available. His portrayals of self-confident, athletic, and highly sexed men served as prototypes for gay "clones" in the 1970s and later decades.

Among the many later gay artists influenced by Tom of Finland's work is the prominent Japanese painter, Sadao Hasegawa. In such works as Lion Dance (1982) and Secret Ritual (1987), Hasegawa successfully sought to incorporate Tom's hyper-masculinity and exuberant sexuality into innovative depictions of themes ultimately inspired by the spiritual traditions of Buddhism and Hinduism.

In the 1980s, Robert Mapplethorpe defied taboos that still restricted exposure of explicit depictions of (homo)sexuality. In prominent fine arts galleries and museums in the United States and Europe, he exhibited carefully and elegantly composed "close-up" photographs that captured nude men in the midst of fisting and other S&M activities.

The Perfect Moment, a nationally touring exhibition of his work (1988-1990), provoked unprecedented furor, culminating in the arrest and trial of a museum curator on charges of disseminating pornography. Even many gay community leaders criticized the intense sexuality of Mapplethorpe's work as inappropriate in the era of AIDS.

In addition, his Black Male series (including such images as Thomas on a Pedestal, 1986) was attacked for its objectification of the black body. However, Mapplethorpe eloquently defended his goal of portraying the beauties of individuals who were overlooked in the mainstream art world.

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