Naked men are much more interesting than naked women. That might sound subjective and it is, partly. Yet I have some good arguments to back it up.
Austria is the place to go to ogle hundreds of men with no clothes on. Both the Leopold Museum in Vienna and the Lentos Museum in Linz -- independently and, apparently, coincidentally -- are exposing the male sex in big exhibitions.
Both museums report a rise in the proportion of female visitors. “It’s noticeable that there are a lot of young women between 25 and 30, sometimes in groups,” said Tobias Natter, director of the Leopold Museum. Many men, he said, seem ill at ease with the show. “Men tend to compare themselves with the artworks,” he said. “Women are much more relaxed.”
Naked men make a refreshing change. After all, female nudes have been a fixture of the art canon for centuries. Most of the artists who produced them, the collectors who bought them and the curators who displayed them were men. The interest in them is one-dimensional -- the focus is on their erotic value.
Male nudes carry many varied messages and tell us much more about the human condition.
Stripped down to their birthday suits, men can still be heroic, like Michelangelo’s sculpture of David. More recently, the French artist duo Pierre and Gilles portrayed three soccer players in full frontal, wearing nothing but their socks and sport shoes in “Vive la France.”
Printed on the poster for the Leopold show, it served as a reminder that male nudity can still offend. The museum chose to cover parts of the picture with a red stripe after complaints.
Male nudes can also be vulnerable or tragic, like many historical images of Christ on the cross. The Austrian painter Albin Egger Lienz’s 1926 “Pieta” shows a pale corpse on a mortuary slab, his body foreshortened by the perspective.
Nude self-portraits can be brutal in their desire to expose. Albrecht Duerer turned his scientific attention to detail to his own body in an unsparing, astonishing “Self-Portrait as Nude” (1503-1505). He was recovering from a serious illness and the skin hangs loose from his flesh.
The convention of his time was to minimize genitals in the interests of decency. Duerer made no such compromises, and his own are life-sized and pendulous. He never intended this portrait for public consumption.
It took 500 years and Sigmund Freud for such rigorous self-examination to resurface. Egon Schiele’s nude self-portraits (there are examples in both Linz and Vienna) reveal an unsettling divergence between the provocative and melancholy.
The most heart-breaking of the Leopold nude self-portraits is by the Austrian painter Richard Gerstl, who committed suicide at the age of 28 after a failed love affair with the wife of the composer Arnold Schoenberg.
The furrowed, intense face is strangely lit, the eyes stare with a blank intensity. Painted in 1908 just weeks before his death, it is the incarnation of despair and isolation.
Video offers new potential for self-exposure, and the Linz show has a courageous offering from Peter Land, a Danish artist. Land filmed himself in a shabby modern apartment, performing a striptease while dancing exceptionally badly to banal pop music.
He is overweight, clumsy, and wears a pair of saggy gray underpants and socks. At one point, he nearly falls over after getting a foot caught in his pant-leg. Yet he still manages to be endearing, while making a point about the modern fixation with sanitized, bland physical perfection. The catalogue says Land had to get drunk to make the film. It’s worth the hangover.
Of course, male nudes can be erotic too, in the passive, eye-candy way of many female nudes. Think of all those camp St. Sebastians of the Renaissance, their pale skin helplessly exposed to a hail of penetrating arrows.
Both Linz and Vienna examine gay art; some of it reduces men to sex objects, some is explicit and provocative.
Linz does better than Vienna on female artists, with a fabulous painting by Sylvia Sleigh called “Imperial Nude” of a beautiful man reclining on a divan. Painted in 1975, it is very much of its era: It’s rare to see men with thick curly chest hair portrayed as sex objects these days.
Yet it was Elke Silvia Krystufek’s “Hescape” that made me think there should be more male nudes by women. Her man has a mane of dark hair and is lost in thought. It’s clear from her portrayal that she finds him attractive, yet it’s empathetic as well as erotic.
I can’t think of a single equivalent example of a female nude that makes me think I’d like to know the person. This is no objectification: Krystufek’s model retains his dignity and personality, even without his clothes.
Women were excluded from nude drawing classes at art schools until the 20th century, so have a lot of catching up to do. These new male nudes mark the start of a genre that could run for a few centuries more, if the male fascination with naked women is a guide.
“Nackte Maenner” (Nude Men) is at the Leopold Museum in Vienna through Jan. 28, 2013. “Der nackte Mann” (The Naked Man) is at the Lentos Museum in Linz through Feb. 17, 2013. For more information, go to: http://www.leopoldmuseum.org/en and http://www.lentos.at
(Catherine Hickley writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Any opinions expressed are her own.)