The classical female nude is historically symbolic of beauty, while the male nude attracts much controversy in the adverse sense. The formal qualities attributed to the male nude are often linked with homosexual desire and historical depictions of the male nude conform to rigid classical form and posture. With the invention of the camera, though the figure remained classical in rendition, the function and purpose of the male nude as a symbol began to change. Evidence of this can be seen in Eugene's 1855 standing male nude.
Thomas Eakins was very controversial in 1887-92 for using full-frontal male nudity in both his art and the art classes he taught. The shock value came largely from the subject matter, as he still kept everything classical in representation. The image of the male nude was foreign to the public, in the sense that it had been kept hidden for many years, and the focus was almost always on the coy female nude. In comparison, the male nude, by virtue of his genitals, was prominent, aggressive and exposed. It could be expressed that the Greek ideal of a slender male sex organ attempted to relinquish some of the overbearing nature that the male form held.
19th-century psychoanalysis theories about sexuality and desire would lead people to believe that these images brought forth a growing awareness that the male nude was associated with homosexuality. Due to this, in alliance with the public association of the classical male form with aggression, domination and brutality, a great reluctance for the subject developed.
Such a frame of mind would remain well after the Second World War. Ironically, as frontal male nudes were deemed offensive, models would tastefully cover up their genitals. As such, an even greater emphasis on the strength and power of their bodies were created. In attempting to quell the exposed and aggressive nature of the male nude, hiding the genitals had an adverse effect. It was in this homophobic self-depreciating male climate of 1956 that Bruce Bellas launched his own magazine, Male Figure.
The homo-erotic images printed within the magazine only enjoyed a limited market and the work received little critical acclaim and for the most part, the images themselves circulated mostly within gay magazines. Whether that was Bellas’ intention or not, it is interesting how the subverted nature of the male nude created a seething demand for a kind of breakthrough. Even in the, what are now considered modest, historical images of the mid twentieth century, the vengeance on the male nude was the power to domineer, to spill his seed, and in doing so, relinquish the qualities associated with the female nude—innocence, fragility and decency
That that breakthrough came during the 1960's and throughout the 1970's sexual revolution was no coincidence. Many photographers who broke the taboo against the male nude were homosexual and bisexual men. The once subverted sexuality was now the catalyst for showcasing homo-erotic imagery. There was still a hesitation, but the images presented were more forward than ever before. At the forefront was Robert Mapplethorpe, who was known for his large-scale, highly stylized portraits and frank homo-eroticism. He had gained a lot of acclaim and much controversy over the years for his sexually charged photographs, were criticized as being offensive, exploitative and pornographic.
Even though these were ground breaking and daring, they still kept with the classical representation of the ideal male body. In 1984, John Coplan would challenge that undying ideal by photographing his 65 year old body. His motivation was immediately removed from the sexual, to a question about how our culture views age, and how in a modern society age is not often associated with beauty or vitality. Coplan’s male nude became the equivalent to the classical female nude. His depiction of the male nude was vulnerable, soft, coy and non-aggressive. It demanded investigation and was surprisingly approachable. The mannerisms are unsure, hesitated and feel incredibly spontaneous. The artist is nervous, but welcomes scrutiny as if he realizes it is the only thing that will propel the male nude to a different classification.
Copland did not believe in the classical Greek ideal, and according to him, it "was a load of bull shit". As such, he never photographed his face and his images are impersonal, not focused on a specific man or their identity. American photographer Sally Mann had a different perspective. Thought she is best known for her large black-and-white photographs of her young children, later works touch on darker themes such as insecurity, loneliness, injury, sexuality and death. Mann's seventh book, Proud Flesh, published in 2009, is a six year study of her husband's battle with muscular dystrophy.
She used an old camera to capture the decaying effects of time, declaring, "I am a woman who looks. Within traditional narratives, women who look, especially women who look unflinchingly at men, have been punished. Take poor Psyche, punished for all time for daring to lift the lantern to finally see her lover." Her perspective is deeply personal. And although this is a man she was deeply intimate with, the images does not focus on that fact. Though the classical barrier and frothing sexual subject matter has been broken on many frontiers, contemporary women artists still largely avoid the male nude.
Hopefully there will come a time when all concepts will fuse together and be accepted, so then we will gain a greater understanding of the human body as a whole.