Monday, December 5, 2016

The Male Depicted as Female

Over the course of western art history, a certain visual language developed to depict the female figure. One common example would be the exposed and horizontal pose of the reclining Venus, which became a template to express the female as an object of passivity, beauty, and desire. For a variety of reasons, many artists have taken an interest in making work that seeks to upset these gender conventions. Some have created work that asks what would happen if men were to be artistically rendered in a manner similar to the women. There are many painters and sculptures who have (sometimes accidentally) created highly androgynous male figures that fail to conform to any traditional description of masculinity. Beginning in Neoclassicism and ending in the 21st Century, the following six works of art are confrontational in that they challenge the viewer to reexamine maleness. The historically taboo act of crossing gender boundaries, whether in art or in our day to day lives, has resulted in interesting and oftentimes important dialogue. By bending the rules and experimenting with the male depiction, the artworks shown in this collection present a variety of methods in which men have been presented, and altered, through the customs of femininity.

Anton Raphael Mengs, Pleasure, ca. 1754, Pastel on Paper, Oval, 24 3/8 x 19 1/4 in. (61.9 x 48.9 cm), The Met, New York City

The fusion of feminine adornment and a distinctly male body in Mengs’ interpretation of the icon Pleasure is disarming. The soft facial features, swirling pastels, and abundance of flowers play with the viewers expectations and cause the subject to be immediately viewed as female. If it was not for the exposed chest we would have no way of knowing that this is a portrait of a boy. Mengs is utilizing lavish feminine imagery to juxtapose his subject with how his subject is clothed.

Anne-Louis Girodet, The Sleep of Endymion, 1791, oil on canvas, 6′ 6″ x 8′ 7″, The Louvre, Paris, France

While Mengs communicates femaleness through adornment, Girodet uses the gesture of the nude male body to present his subject in a feminine light. Endymion, the main character in this painting, is vulnerably lying in a forest bathed in moonlight. His face is turned away from the viewer to reveal an unusually rounded jawline and long locks of hair that fall down his shoulders. It is clear that Girodet was trying to present the character as somewhere in between male and female. Endymion’s body, though possessing the biological indicators that he is male, is enhanced and sculpted by the light in such a way as to smooth and emphasize the curves of his figure. 

Jean Broc, The Death of Hyacinthos, 1801, Oil on canvas, 175 x 120 cm, Musée Sainte-Croix, Poitiers

In this painting of a mythological romance and tragedy, the femininity of Hyacinthos is exaggerated by the presence of his lover Apollo. Not only do both the figures possess androgynous qualities, they are also in a situation that normally occurs between male and female. The tragic lover heroically cleaving to the body of his female is suddenly put in the context of a male-male relationship. More than simply an expression of homosexuality, the two characters display a reversal in gender by adopting the traditionally female model of depiction, particularly in the rendering of Hyacinthos.

Fernand Khnopff, The Caress, 1896, oil on canvas, Musée Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels

In Khnopff’s painting, masculinity is traded for femininity in an even more unusual way than seen in the previous artworks. Both faces are definitely female, but the body of the human is male while the leopard appears to be representing the female. The Caress is mysterious, and whether or not the painting is intentionally trying to blur gender lines is unclear. However, it is an example of how the overall feeling or meaning of a piece can change whenever an artist breaks the boundaries of traditional masculine depiction.

Yasumasa Morimura, Portrait (Futago), 1988 ; photograph ; chromogenic print with acrylic paint and gel medium, 82 3/4 in. x 118 in., San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

In this self-portrait, artist Yasumasa Morimura is parodying Edouard Manet's painting titled Olympia. By directly referencing the pose and nudity of Manet’s French prostitute, he is very boldly adopting the feminine depiction and repurposing it to say something entirely different. By putting himself in this position, the more effeminate features of Morimura’s body are emphasized and the viewer is confronted with the line between physiological differences between the sexes. This is a prime example of an artist fully aware of how impactful it can be to break gender norms. 

Kehinde Wiley, Femme piquée par un serpent, 2008, oil on canvas, 102 x 300 in., Brooklyn Museum, New York

Wiley chose to create a sprawling portrait of a young man in an unusual way. The pose is taken from a sculpture by the artist Auguste Clésinger in which a woman is collapsed and writhing in pain from a snakebite. Wiley chose an unlikely candidate to model for this piece — a black, urban male. Strangely graceful and oddly powerful, this portrait uses conventions of a longstanding tradition of white european females to present the male subject in a different light. Unlike Morimura's Portrait, this painting stands on its own — an alternative view of the male using feminine norms but maintaining aesthetic appeal. 

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