You’re not allowed to take photographs inside Musee d’Orsay, my favorite museum in Paris. Yes, other people, more sophisticated perhaps, may go to smaller specialized museums, the Guimet Museum of Asian Art, the Rodin, or La Musee Nissim de Camondo, for example. And the Louvre is filled with tourists and the occasional connoisseur checking out this masterpiece or that red on black vase depicting a chariot race from 400 BC.
But for me, it’s the d’Orsay, and today was my first return in three years. The catalyst was the grand exhibition of male nudes now on view, specifically “The Nude Man in Art from 1800 to the Present Day.” And there he was!
Strange how muscle-bound males are not all that exciting. Neither are the perils of barely clad saints such as Sebastian, a favorite subject with those arrows stuck in his chest and buttocks. Just what angle were the archers shooting from?
Achilles, with or without an arrow in his ankle, wassimilarly a model of muscular repose, and Prometheus, even with the vulture eating his kidney, seemed to have the world under control. Why not with those abs and biceps?
Hiding behind a half-wall, I snapped the portrait of Prometheus (1868) by Gustave Moreau before the guard caught me. (Moreau has his own little museum to be visited in the next few days as I hear he shocked his peers by hallucinatory. Let’s see.)
Hermes was slightly more charming, youth that he is with that cute little hat, as was John the Baptist as a boy, radiating faith. It made me think about how people believe the religion they are taught until they are old enough to accept that not only do their parents lie but maybe their culture also, and maybe the story is too large for only one version.
It wasn’t until the early 1900’s that naked men could be portrayed as what I’m used to, skinnier and prone to listing this way or that. It happened with the advent of photography and self portraits. And people such as Francis Bacon who threw red and yellow paint around like wounds of existential angst.
Yet, the heroic vision of the male body as muscle remained. Think of the photos of Mapplethope for one.
So there I was, a woman trying to find the men within the bodies. It was difficult to do. I think it is sometimes difficult for men also.
Leaving I saw a young man, fully clothed, kissing a young woman. I whipped out my iphone and took a photo before the guard charged. He did, but I had seen love unmuscle-bound, and I liked it, and I understood it, and I got the photo.