The notion of a classical tradition is so closely tied to artistic representation of the male body that it pervades even the most modern of art forms. Recent artists such as Robert Mapplethorpe have photographed neo-classical marbles as well as living nudes in similar compositions (Tsuzuki and Celant 2005), and Andy Warhol specifically posed male nudes in the familiar poses of ancient statues (Barthes 1978; Warhol and Goldhill 2005). These references to antiquity, however, are mediated by photography’s own heritage. Greek and Roman culture is now less often evoked as apology, but rather in celebration of an eroticism that was long concealed or denied (Davis 1991; Waugh 1996).
Allusions to antiquity, common in the academic nudes of drawing and painting, were even more important to nineteenth-century photography, when the medium’s own artistic status was in doubt. Photographic technology was a dubious craft, suspect because of its ability to create misleading images, but nonetheless valued for its ability to document exact likenesses. The notion that photographs were directly representations suggested a new relationship between the viewer, whether behind the camera’s lens or holding the printed image, and the viewed. This new gaze caused particular anxiety in relation to the male nude, whose erotic potential was now available in a more direct manner to both female and male consumers (Callen 2003). Seeking a legitimate place in modern markets, distinct from the burgeoning business of pornography, the male nude found a familiar cloak of artistic respectability in antiquity. Correspondences with ancient Greek art, both generally and with famous sculptures in particular, became a standard theme in the dialogue surrounding the potentially troubling male form in photography. But the ancient world was also open to many views, and connections ranged from public society’s broad sense of shared heritage to the intimate relationship some individuals constructed with the classical past in the development and justification of homosexual identities.
This chapter explores the associations between ancient art and two figural types of the male nude: the London strongman and the Mediterranean youth. Image
Makers set these bodies in aesthetic contexts that brought appropriate classical models into play with each physical type. The sculpted body was a widely admired legacy from classical art, and visual parallels with ancient statues tempered reactions to the brazen presentation of strongmen’s bare bodies. An instructional and inspirational prose developed in physical culture publications, relating an appreciation for Greek and Roman marbles with an admiration of heavily muscled flesh. A separate, self-consciously elevated discourse surrounded the images of more lightly muscled bodies, which circulated among artists and sophisticates, who debated their merit in terms of classicizing aesthetics. In letters and publications associated with the photographs of exotic youths, invocations of poets such as Homer and Anacreon, or the artists Pheidias and Praxitiles, elucidated the symbolic values of ancient art by which the images extended Greek traditions.
Classicizing nudes operated within a system of mass-produced photographic images, through which Victorian society developed shared, lasting attitudes to categories of people both at home and abroad. Through the allegedly objective lens of science, ethnographers and sociologists labelled undressed bodies as distinguished by ethnic traits and characteristics alleged to indicate primitivism and deviancy (Willis and Williams 2002; Seitler 2004). Eroticized views of non-western societies put particular emphasis on same-sex practices, broadly grouped as pederastic (Bleys 1996). Mediterranean countries were certainly implicated as southern lands of sexual license, while photographs of ruined temples and early excavations reinforced a respect for the classical heritage of Greece and Italy (Lyons et al. 2005). Though most frequently mentioned as vice or taboo, the promise of sexual liberation, veiled by the cultural tradition of the Grand Tour, drew many wealthy artists and aesthetes (Aldrich 1993).
One cultural figure who had a particularly significant voice in the association of photographic nudes, exotic landscapes and ancient art was the poet, biographer, art historian and essayist John Addington Symonds (1840-1893). Today, Symonds is best remembered for his ground-breaking studies of attitudes towards homosexuality, A Problem in Greek Ethics and A Problem in Modern Ethics, which were published privately in 1883 and 1891. The circulation of these writings was limited, extremely so at first, but Symonds long considered broader release and many of his less polemical works betray aspects of his private passion. Both his public and his private writings intersect with an extended network of image makers and consumers, who connected modern male nudes with the classical tradition. An enthusiastic admirer of both the strongman and the ephebe, Symonds serves as an excellent guide to the rhetoric surrounding the photographic nude. And in his treatment of the male nude in the classical tradition and the contemporary arts, Symonds reveals himself as a scholar, with his own political and personal passions (Blanshard 2000).