The evolution of masculinity through art

The evolution of masculinity through art


Joseph Campbell in The Hero of a Thousand Faces made a comparative study of the myths of various cultures of the world to find the common path that the heroes have in each culture, a journey that has similarities from the epic of Rama in India to the superheroes of the comics that now dominate the cinema.

The American researcher writes: “All over the inhabited world, at all times and in all circumstances, myths of man have flourished; they have been the living inspiration for everything that has ever emerged from the activities of the human body and mind. It would not be an exaggeration to say that myth is the secret entrance through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos are poured into human cultural manifestations.”

This coincidence between the heroes of antiquity and those of our times finds a close relationship with the way in which art has shaped men, changing according to the cultures that represent them and at the same time maintaining a constant that goes back to the first representations of masculinity.

Veneration of the masculine

The evolution of masculinity through art
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

In the West, the male figure was a central part of the culture, was the greatest reference, and became the most important measure of beauty. These were civilizations where a man was the ultimate bearer of power, whether in the system of government or in mythology; and as such, when representing him graphically, he had to highlight the grandiosity of his political office or the feat he performed in myth.  

In ancient Egypt, representations of masculinity were generally reserved for pharaohs or high-ranking men. At first without much detail, with a short skirt, arms attached to the body, and clenched fists; however, in the Kingdom of Kush (1070 B.C.-A.D. 350) sculptures were characterized by greater realism and a focus on the male torso.

This way of representing the male body continued in Greece with the Kuros, statues of young men that were influenced by Egyptian sculptures, but unlike those carved in North Africa, these new interpretations were naked and did not refer to a leader, as they were closely related to Apollo, the sun god.

In Greece, and years later in Rome, the sculptures sought greater realism, looking for movement in the figures and focusing on body parts to dramatize the power of the heroes and gods, with bulging legs and buttocks that referred to physical and sexual strength.

Since the Egyptians and mainly with the Greeks, a good part of the male representations was characterized by bodies that seemed to belong to young and teenagers, with discrete musculature and small phalluses. This element became more relevant in the Hélade because it was an openly bisexual culture.

An ideal of beauty 

When thinking about the male figure in art, our mind inevitably leads us to Michelangelo’s David, a Renaissance sculpture that seems to reflect the perfection of a man with a strong influence on Greek art. However, the idea that the Renaissance Italians had about Greece and ancient Rome was a construction far removed from reality.

The European Renaissance painters began to produce works inspired by the Greeks and Romans. It was not a replica of their predecessors, in classical antiquity, there was no ideal body of man, although the body of the young teenager predominated, to our times came sculptures with exaggerated musculatures, such as the Hercules Farnese and the Belvedere Torso.

All this variety of bodies made the artists of the Renaissance interested in shaping to perfection the body of man, which was still seen as the ultimate symbol of beauty. Artists such as Masaccio, Donatello, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael began to learn anatomy with human bodies in order to draw and carve their works more accurately.

Since the work of Greek and Roman antiquity depicted nudes, Renaissance artists continued with this trend, regardless of the Christian restrictions on these representations, as there were biblical passages that allowed artists to continue depicting the male nude despite the time.

In fact, Michelangelo painted all the naked bodies in The Last Judgment of the Sistine Chapel, however, Pope Pius IV had them covered with veils and garments.

It was a time of artistic flourishing, where painters were formed in closed guilds dominated by men and where women could only enter if they inherited the workshop from a relative. This professionalization of art made the way of shaping masculinity vary notably and became richer with the passing of the years.

In this way, currents such as Mannerism continued with the representation of delicate figures of antiquity, but at the same time, they fought the classic Renaissance artists by representing bodies with strange postures, full of movement, and almost deformed figures that went against the perfection of their predecessors.

In contrast, the Baroque was characterized by a return to realism in representing the body of man, regardless of the age, position, or power of the individual. Artists like Caravaggio turned to Renaissance perfection with the use of chiaroscuro, which gave a dramatic effect to the bodies that were being shaped; in this way, the search for perfection was eliminated to give way to a representation of reality in its totality, which included diverse social groups and not only heroes or religious figures.

Modern interpretations

Until the Renaissance and Mannerism, much of the art focused on the representation of important figures, myths, or religious passages; a tendency that limited the artists, but with the Baroque, the subjects of art grew and with that expansion, the man stopped being a subject of creative fascination.

The male body loses strength to focus attention on other similes of beauty, such as nature, landscapes, or the female body.

This lack of interest in the male figure in art had an exception at the beginning of the 20th century. In the Soviet Union, the philosophy embodied by Marx and put into practice by Lenin promised that a different world could exist, far from the great European aristocracies or the deities worshipped by the Church.

That was how socialist realism was born, to propagate the path of socialism and communism. Art was not a poetic inspiration, but rather a vehicle for the proletariat to achieve an ideological transformation.

A large part of this art expressed in statues and paintings the idea of the new Soviet man, the archetype on which the revolution would be based thanks to his generosity, education, health, and physical strength; feelings that were embodied in heroic, young and muscular figures.

In this way, a good part of the history of art oscillated between two types of men: the heroic figure -characterized by his physical strength-, and the youthful one, which boasted an underdeveloped and almost androgynous body. Although most modern and contemporary art stopped using these figures, in other types of artistic expression they have remained valid.

It is not surprising that Eugen Sandow considered the father of bodybuilding, posed to resemble the “Greek Ideal” of Greco-Roman statues, and promoted himself as a modern Hercules; a trend that continued in the cinema with actors such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. In contrast, on the world’s greatest musical stages, figures such as Mick Jagger, David Bowie, and Iggy Pop were once again enchanted by their strange movements and unusual youthful bodies. In the end, as Joseph Campbell wrote: the hero is still present, only with a multitude of different masks.

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