When London’s Victoria and Albert Museum was festively opened in the mid-nineteenth century, Queen Victoria saw a replica of Michelangelo’s David for the first time and was deeply shocked by this unexpected confrontation with male nakedness. The museum directors immediately ordered a fig leaf to be positioned over the vulnerable parts of the beautiful young man in order to prevent such an embarrassing situation from ever happening again when a member of the royal family paid a visit to the museum – a protocol maintained until the 1950s. In other parts of Europe, the increasing sense of pudeur led to many more statues from classical antiquity being provided with green varnished metallic fig leaves. Since then, the restrictions on matters previously considered shocking have spectacularly diminished in the Western world. People see more nakedness than the Victorian age could ever have imagined. Advertising and pornography continuously push the limits.
Everywhere in the world, censorship lurks around the corner. On July 9, 2012, the hundredth birthday of China’s National Museum in Beijing was celebrated with an exhibition of famous Italian Renaissance artworks. On that day, Chinese TV news put blurring pixels on the genitals of the very same David that had so upset Queen Victoria more than one-and- a-half centuries earlier. Attentive Chinese social media users immediately launched a storm of indignant protests. The producer of the television programme defended himself: “The content would affect the visuals, would hurt public morals, or would have a serious negative effect upon audiences.”
But the confrontation with devastating comments from masses of spectators made the producers change their minds and four hours later, in the next broadcast of the same news, David’s genitals were no longer pixelated.
Examples can also be found in contemporary Western museums. In 2014, I was looking at Gustave Courbet’s famous 1866 painting L’Origine du monde (The Origin of the World) in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, an artwork directly confronting the public with a vulva between two spread upper legs. The nineteenth-century realistic painting was extremely shocking to the eyes of the Western bourgeoisie when it was first painted. Though many paintings did depict nudes in those days, naked bodies were acceptable only when safely framed in mythological or religious representations, and without that familiar frame, nakedness caused offence. At the museum that day, a large group of Chinese adolescents stood giggling in front of the painting. I asked two of the boys whether they liked it. “Very special to see so close up where life originates,” one said. The other confessed that this was the first time he was seeing “a real vagina” and that was “quite confrontational”. No, such a painting didn’t exist in China, they believed, but here in Europe apparently people were already used to everything as far as art was concerned.
In a different part of the same museum, there was a special exhibition about the male nude, entitled Masculin/Masculin. Part of the show was a male equivalent of Courbet’s painting, created about 125 years later by the female artist Orlan, in the same dimensions and put in exactly the same frame as L’Origine du monde. The figure also consists of upper legs, genitals, a belly and thighs, but in this case, a scrotum appears with two testicles above the perineum, a stretched penis on top of a man’s belly with the uncovered glans pointing to the navel. According to the artist, in an interview this was just “an average penis”, and absolutely not a question of pornography, as some had disapprovingly suggested. The name – L’Origine de la guerre (The Origin of War) – and the topic of the painting were meant as a reply to Courbet’s painting: the two artworks in fact start a dialogue. Apart from this work, the female perspective on male nakedness was conspicuous by its absence in the exhibition.
According to the catalogue accompanying the exhibition the male nude – the very last taboo – had to be lifted here and now.
In 2012, the Leopold Museum in Vienna had curated a similar exhibition. According to the museum director, Tobias Natter, it is still very unusual for an exhibition to highlight male nakedness, because it continues to be seen as a taboo. Having received numerous complaints from shocked Viennese citizens, the museum had felt forced to cover the genitals of three naked soccer players with a red bar on the poster advertising the exhibition, which depicted a work by the French artists Pierre and Gilles, entitled “Vive la France”. The exhibition in Paris on the same topic had wisely avoided using the same image on its posters.
The two exhibitions did not wipe away this oldest taboo, but demonstrated mainly one thing: in the Western world, public images of female nakedness no longer seem to shock the majority of people. Naked men are much less exploited as desirable objects in advertising and on television, and the public space is rarely confronted with a scarcely clad (let alone completely naked) man on a billboard. The question of whether a male nude in the arts is or was the last taboo has to be more clearly qualified. And the ancient taboo of a critical female perspective on male nakedness is still standing.
An undesirable gaze risks undoing a naked person’s prestige, as it reduces the naked body into a defenceless object, in particular when he feels out of control.
In that same order of thinking, an undesirable female gaze at one’s penis was believed to bring misfortune, in the way of the evil eye. That undesirable gaze could even result in impotence. Traditional sayings confirm that fear of an overthrown hierarchy: “A man who sees a vulva in the morning, must quickly go to the market” (Arabic, Algeria). Such an exceptional opportunity was believed to bring a man good luck. Such messages suggest that a woman brings a man good luck as long as he is deciding which male and female body parts are to be shown and which ones stay hidden. It is all very human. With or without garments, on the land or in the water, nobody likes to be caught unawares.
Excerpted with permission from Naked or Covered: A History of Dressing and Undressing Around the World, Mineke Schipper, Speaking Tiger.