For years art was strongly related by a practical element, whether to represent a deity, a religious passage, a heroic character, or a historical fact.
In the past, the male figure even became the become of beauty, but with the tendency to dissociate itself from tradition, perfection began to be linked to the female body and, eventually, the avant-garde focused its attention on the deep feelings of the human being and left in the past the visual aspects that dominated before.
Although art moved away from figurative representations, some artists adapted their style to the male body, fighting the classical tendency to paint or sculpt reality as they saw it. For example, Fernand Léger in Soldiers Playing Cards took the terrible stories of the trenches in the First World War to turn soldiers into bodies that resemble machines. Ferdinand Hodler in Youth Admired by Women decided to symbolize the unity of man with an androgynous figure with two flowers in each hand in a clear modernist representation.
This trend was joined by artists such as Henri Rousseau, Auguste Rodin, Vladimir Tatlin, Picasso, Salvador Dalí, and in Mexico José Clemente Orozco, who on several occasions used the male figure as a mean of representation to evoke a greater feeling, instead of finding in masculinity an ultimate end.
In art, the male figure was very often related to strength and power, in contrast to the feminine aspects that were passively expressed. To combat this construction of masculinity, various artists began to reimagine the idea of the man, directly combating the classic ideal that for years dominated art.
The American artist Sylvia Sleigh in the seventies placed herself at the forefront of this movement by painting men in positions that were traditionally reserved for women in art. Also, she reinterpreted art classics to place male bodies in the places occupied by female figures, such as in her work Philip Golub Reclining, which evoked Velázquez’s Venus of the Mirror, or The Turkish Bath, in which she placed the naked bodies that artists and art critics had done in Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s controversial painting of the same title.
The bodies painted by Sylvia Sleigh, besides being in postures that in art had been reserved for women, showed natural bodies, without the exaggerated musculature or androgynous characteristics that dominated in antiquity, they were men with tanning marks, hair in the chest, legs, and back, as well as multiple examples of the different types of body.
In this way, her feminist art not only reversed the roles that had historically been embodied in art but also opened the door to new male figures, who were moving away from the ideal body imagined in Greek or Roman heroes.
Sylvia Sleigh’s art was not unique; for the first time, women placed themselves at the very forefront of a guild that for centuries had been dominated by men and sought to re-imagine masculinity that had only been imagined in concepts of power or heroism.
In this way, artists such as Sophie Calle, Julika Rudelius, Tracey Emin, Susan Silas, made use of painting, sculpture, film, photography, and performance to show men’s bodies in an erotic way, but at the same time showing the individuality, imperfection, and vulnerability of each subject.
Art became independent of patronage, not only did feminist artists begin to reinterpret men’s bodies, they also began to address aspects of masculinity that had been completely ignored.
Probably one of the best examples is Robert Mapplethorpe, an American photographer who in his career portrayed figures such as Andy Warhol, Peter Gabriel, Richard Gere, Cindy Sherman, Patti Smith, and Iggy Pop, but it was with his X Portfolio, in which he portrayed images of sadomasochism, and with The Black Book, focused on nudes of black men, exhibitions that gave rise to multiple controversies because of their explicit content.
In the end, the masculine figure in art with the plurality of artists left behind the classic ideals to see men in a more real way: far from myths seeking to encompass the variety of feelings, attitudes, and bodies that are part of masculinity.