Naked men are invading the museums of Europe.
Last fall, two shows exclusively devoted to male nudes opened in Austria in Vienna and Linz. The Leopold Museum in Vienna even organized a special nudists’ night. Braving icy temperatures, they turned up in droves.
Now it’s Paris’s turn. The Musee d’Orsay has come up with “Masculin/ Masculin -- The Nude Man in Art from 1800 to the Present Day.”
The title alludes to “Feminin-Masculin,” a 1995 exhibit at the Pompidou Center that explored heterosexual love. The show at the Musee d’Orsay, without openly admitting it, has strong homosexual undertones and it has been drawing crowds.
Its opening just four months after the French parliament legalized gay marriage may be no accident.
Unlike their Viennese colleagues, the curators at the Musee d’Orsay aren’t interested in following chronology.
In the first room, after two 17th-century St. Sebastians, you find yourself face to face with a 2001 “Mercurius,” a naked hunk with a winged helmet by Pierre et Gilles, a team of French artists whose campy specialty, spread over painted photographs, is the epitome of kitsch.
With no less than seven works on the walls and an extensive interview in the catalog, Pierre et Gilles are the show’s unofficial patron saints.
It’s not surprising that many of the 180 paintings, sculptures, drawings and photographs are no masterpieces. Thematic shows tend to include second and third-rate artists who, more often than not, represent the zeitgeist better than the self-absorbed geniuses.
Quite a few of their daubs are unintentionally funny. “Fleau” (The Scourge) by the totally forgotten Henri Camille Danger will remind you of filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille’s most extravagant trash epics.
Nor was I surprised to discover that the show is dominated by French artists. The rest of the world has to content itself with a third of the space.
You’ll look in vain for works by 19th century painter Hans von Marees and his muscular fishermen or Thomas Eakins (1844-1916), who lost his teaching job at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts because he had allowed a mixed class to draw from a nude male model.
The problem with the show is that it lacks a clear concept. The titles of the sections are either meaningless (“Without Pity”, “The Glorious Body”) or misleading.
Under the heading “Gods of the Stadium,” you find a Nordic hero by Hitler’s favorite sculptor Arno Breker next to Jeanloup Sieff’s famous photograph of a naked Yves Saint Laurent who was anything but an athlete.
It would have made more sense to contrast Breker with Alexander Deineka, one of Stalin’s official painters. Yet Deineka’s huge 1944 canvas “Shower, After the Battle” glorifying Soviet soldiers hangs in the room “The Temptation of the Male.”
That section, with paintings by David Hockney and Paul Cadmus as well as drawings by Jean Cocteau and Andy Warhol, is the most openly gay in the exhibition. Yet, confusingly, it also includes “Spring” by the Swiss painter Ferdinand Hodler with a girl kneeling beside a seated naked youth.
Francis Bacon’s contorted bodies appear under the heading “In Pain” in the company of two dead Abels and two versions of Ixion, the Greek Cain, strapped to a revolving wheel. Crucifixions and flagellations appear in another part of the show.
So forget about coherence, order or context and enjoy the striptease for what it’s worth. Much of the flesh on view may not be seen again anytime soon.
“Masculin/Masculin”, which is supported by Harley-Davidson, runs through Feb. 2, 2014. Information: http://www.musee-orsay.fr
(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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