From towering billboards showing David Beckham in his underwear, to that supercharged superbowl ad for Calvin Klein, pop culture seems to have remembered lately that it’s not just women’s bodies people want to see. But artists have always known this, and have celebrated the male nude since antiquity in ways both reverential and erotic, from Greek sculpture to contemporary photography.
Art history has, of course, provided no shortage of female nudes to accompany them. But what makes the male nude unique by comparison is the artist’s gaze: Most professional artists have been men, and as such, their self-awareness and — perhaps, more importantly — their desire for or repulsion toward the male figure have influenced their renderings in particular ways, ranging from the contemptuous to the overtly sexual in taboo-challenging ways.
As the following images illustrate, depictions of the male body have varied in style and medium over time, but the male body remains a powerful muse through the ages. Christie’s celebrates an important chapter of that history here, in advance of our exclusive online sale, in “For Members Only: Eyes on the Guise,” a collection of Andy Warhol illustrations and photographs, drawn from his most intimate moments.
No doubt the most iconic male nude of all time is over 500 years old: Michelangelo’s David. Sculpture was the predominant medium of ancient times; the Renaissance revitalized that tradition,and, with it, such uncompromising renderings of the male nude as hadn’t been seen in centuries. Sexual relationships between men once again flourished in Europe, as in Ancient times: With women being prized for their virginity, men were often the only viable option for extramarital sex.
Centuries before the Renaissance, the male nude was a revered physical form in ancient Greece, symbolizing virility, strength and power. Male sexual relationships were common practice. Often, an older man acted as the aggressor toward a much younger boy who was still coming of age, as depicted in the image engraved here on the Warren Cup.
Artistic depictions of all-male recreational and social activities became popular at the turn of the twentieth century. Images of bathhouses and other bathing scenes became especially common, with the artist serving as a voyeur into these clandestine activities. Cezanne’s bathers, seen here, present a well-known example.
Demuth’s watercolors, like this one, offer a forbidden, sexually-charged gaze into an intimate all-male enclave.
Warhol’s 1950s drawings of male nudes were particularly inspired by the line drawings of his Modernist predecessors: the clean, simple lines of Henri Matisse; the creative figurative perspectives of Pablo Picasso; and the eroticism of Jean Cocteau, Egon Schiele and Lucian Freud — the latter of whom drew this auto-erotic image in 1943.
Schiele’s contorted self-portrait — scandalous in its time for the explicitness of its rendering — demonstrates the movement and fluidity that can be masterfully executed in pen and ink on paper.
Jean Cocteau’s drawing of two young men posed together playfully was originally an illustration for the novel Querelle, by Jean Genet: a homo-fatale story forshadowing the pulp fiction of the 1950s.
Warhol not only found inspiration in the drawing styles of his Modernist forebears, as seen in this drawing, he also drew from Querelle, specifically. In 1983, he was commissioned to create the movie poster for the cinematic rendition by Rainer Werner Fassbinder.
Andy Warhol | Reclining Male Nude (c. 1956)
blue ballpoint on paper | 42.5 x 35.3 cm.
The rise of the photographic media provided artists further ways to explore the expression of the nude body. Baron Wilhelm von Gloeden returned to the classical depictions seen in ancient times and again in the Renaissance, with his costumed young men posed together here as well as a group of bathers.
Perhaps no contemporary artist more beautifully and controversially depicted male sexual desire as Robert Mapplethorpe did. His willingness to push the boundaries of artwork and to question the lines between high art and pornography continue to ignite spirited discussion.