Anatomy of a Controversy: All The ‘Nude Men’

An exhibit at the Leopold ­Museum fights age-old views and censorship of male nudity

Top Stories | Meredith Castile | December 2012 / January 2013

Egon Schiele’s Nude Self-Portrait clearly fascinated Austrian teens (Photo:Leopold Museum)

The recent furore over the Leopold Museum’s Nude Men exhibition posters earned some juicy headlines in the international media. "Viennese Gag on Big Streudels," one blog proclaimed. "Penis Problem: A Vienna Museum Covers Up," declared Deutsche Welle. "Nude Men Draw Women, Enraged Philistines to Vienna," announced Bloomberg. BBC probed "The Shock of the (Male) Nude", and so on. But despite the buzz, the stories mostly missed the larger context. Nobody was interested in thinking much about the why of it all; the scandal was too much fun.

Not that it made much sense in a city papered with Klimt and Schiele nudes on every other billboard, in a country with nude bathing beaches and Alpine hiking in nothing but boots and a hat…

But first, the story...

It’s mid-October. An outraged Viennese segment of the public, described by the museum as "primarily strict Catholics and Muslims," protests the citywide display of the exhibition poster, a Pierre & Gilles image of three frontally naked male football players. The offended parties argue that children in public should not be exposed to such explicit male nudity.

On 16 October, the museum responds to the outrage by placing strategic red tape over the offending large-scale posters. (The "red tape" itself was part of the fun for the English speakers, inviting the punning reference to bureaucratic obstructionism.)

On 19 October, the exhibit opens. Its title wall features an affixed "Jugendschutzwarnung," or youth advisory warning. In what might be read as a slighting commentary on the censorious Viennese, the warning is issued in German only.

The show, which runs through January 28, continues to be wildly successful. It outsold the Leopold’s Klimt 150th anniversary show with as many as 2,000 visitors a day.


Missing the point

The Leopold’s spokesperson Klaus Pokorny issued a statement of surprise at the anger and fear the poster generated. Co-curator Tobias Natter also issued a statement expressing shock that the museum’s self-censorship proved necessary in today’s world. The situation struck him as a flashback to the distant past.

And indeed, male nudity provoking shock and censorship is as traditionally Viennese as Klimt. In 1898, Klimt created a poster advertising the first show of the Secessionist movement. It displayed a naked man, but the image didn’t make it past the censors. Klimt was forced to redesign the print to run a thin band over the offending anatomy.

The parallels between the censored Klimt poster and the censored Nude Men poster are obvious. Fittingly, the Klimt prints (pre- and post-censorship) hang in the same room as the Pierre & Gilles photo that inspired this recent uproar.

Assuming the sincerity of its statements, the Leopold was perhaps naïve in its expectations. After all, the whole point of the show is that male nudity shocks much more than female nudity. Representations of female nudity seldom offend; they are everywhere in Vienna, from the near naked women daily in the newspaper Heute to the U-Bahn streaker dubbed the "Vienna Venus," whose viral photos elicited nothing more than piqued interest. A similar stunt by a man would undoubtedly be seen as a public threat.


Double standard

In contrast, the full frontal female nudity of a recent Kunsthistorische poster has offended no one, Mr. Natter observed. So why was only the male nudity provocative? A historian friend offered an off-hand psychoanalytic take: "It’s Papa." A father’s nakedness – defenselessness – is the most menacing visual taboo in our culture.

In the Bible, the drunken post-flood Noah curses his youngest son for glimpsing him naked. There is no equivalent with a mother figure.

Susan Bordo’s 1999 book The Male Body examines gendered double standards in how nudity is represented and understood. Bordo quotes John Ashbery in New York magazine: "Nude women seem to be in their natural state; men, for some reason, merely look undressed… When is a nude not a nude? When it is male."

Bordo finds Ashbery offensive. To illustrate why, she asks her reader to mentally substitute "blacks" for "women" and "whites" for "men." The idea that one group is more civilized, or less "naturally" naked, reveals deep cultural prejudices, she says. In any event, Ashberry’s description—whether it is descriptive or indeed discriminatory—evokes a powerful asymmetry between representations of male and female nakedness. Which was, in fact, the point of the show. Nude Men upsets our cultural expectations.

"Women may dread being surveyed harshly – being seen as too old, too fat, too flat-chested – but men are not supposed to enjoy being surveyed, period," Bordo writes. "It’s feminine to be on display." Particularly when the artists and audiences are men.

The Nude Men show allows its viewers to observe, and therefore visually command, representations of male bodies. The show’s power comes from the cumulative effect on the viewer rather than any particular works. It builds toward an overriding idea: you can read a culture’s shifting values through its representations of naked men.

Further evidence it’s a high concept premise? Two museums fought over the idea.

Last January, Lentos Kunstmuseum Linz, whose thoughtful and engaging exhibit The Naked Man runs through 17 February 2013, alleged that the Leopold stole the idea. The Leopold denied the allegation. The two museums have subsequently ignored each other.


Hiding the candy

What’s striking about the Leopold show in particular is how misleading its poster is. Most of the pieces are not sexually provocative. In fact, many of the artists contrive ways to hide the genitalia of their subjects.

"The long shadow of the fig leaf," begins the show’s English audio guide, evocatively. Concealed behind painted drapery or torqued body positions, male genitalia is often not depicted in the exhibition’s works. These are the subtler forms of fig leaves.

They protect the viewer, and the artist, from the disconcerting vulnerability of the truly naked male form. The phallus is a concept – a metaphor of male power. The penis, on the other hand, is a fallible and vulnerable mass of blood and tissue. (Toward the end of the show, Bruce Nauman’s 1985 painting of goose-stepping erect men parodies the conflation of the phallus as symbol and the penis as anatomy.)

Overall, the exhibition focuses on nudes from 1800 to the present day – a broad scope that allows the viewer to newly appreciate the rawness of Egon Schiele and his contemporary Richard Gerstl. Schiele’s sketch Nude Self-Portrait, with Right Hand on Genitals, for instance, does not cast the naked body through the lens of classicism, academic painting or heroics. Rather, it represents the artist intimately, with an outward gaze. The Austrian teenagers at the show met such works with undisguised interest.

But even the rawest of the show’s works are, after all, sequestered in their frames. Plastic confetti garlands the Pierre & Gilles footballers in bleu, blanc, et rouge – and frames the photograph’s multiracial nudity in terms of French diversity. Courting a more provocative immediacy, the publicity poster misleadingly cropped this part of the work. For the point of the piece, and the show itself, is not nudity per se. Rather, it’s that nudes are always clothed in cultural mediation.

As I leave the show, I notice a teenage couple below me, framed by an interior window overlooking a lower level of the museum. Tangled together in a single chair, they make out shamelessly. Obvious and clothed, they are the steamiest thing all day.

So much for the youth advisory warning.

"Nude Men"

Through 4 Mar., 2013

Leopold Museum

Wed.-Mon., 10:00-18:00

Thu., 10:00-21:00

7., Museumsplatz 1

(01) 525 70 0

Other articles from this issue