A new exhibit called "Naked Men" (yeah, but tell me what it's ABOUT) opened yesterday at the Leopold Museum in Vienna, featuring about 300 pieces that serve as a chronological journey through the male nude in Western art — but after numerous complaints about the Leopold's print ads, which featured three naked men posing with soccer balls, officials censored the ads with a red ribbon. Ironically, the point of the exhibit was to shed some light on the male nude as the historically taboo trope that it's been since at least the 16th century, when Fra Bartolomeo's painting of a nude St. Sebastian was removed by Florentine priests after female parishioners confessed that they'd been fantasizing about him. (How great is that?)
While there's been an unabashed abundance of female nudes in the history of art (which saw an aesthetic and technological evolution into, say Annie Leibowitz glossy territory today), as time rolled on, pieces by Klimt and Michaelangelo were only two of the most famous examples of the censorship of the male nude. In layman's terms, The David's junk made Queen Victoria feel awkward. Therefore, fig leaf.
Why does looking at a penis get us all censor-bar-happy? Locals cited multiple reasons that they were made uncomfortable by the ads as well as the exhibition, among them that the images remind them of sex or sexually traumatic experiences. Museum spokesman Klaus Pokorny acknowledges that there's something of a double standard here, and depictions of the naked male body "unfortunately is often still associated with sexual abuse in a way that pictures of naked women aren't."
The male nude reached its peak in the 19th century, when male art models were much easier and cheaper to come by than female ones. A common theme in European art history of that period is also that many female models who posed nude were girlfriends, wives or mistresses of the artist himself, whereas male nudes were for-hire and often only used as an anatomical basis for religious iconography.
Fun facts to remember next time you're looking at a marble penis, from Kenneth Dover's study Greek Homosexuality.
(1) Long, thick penises were considered—at least in the highbrow view— grotesque, comic, or both and were usually found on fertility gods, half-animal critters such as satyrs, ugly old men, and barbarians. A circumcised penis was particularly gross.
(2) The ideal penis was small, thin, and covered with a long, tapered foreskin... A passage from Aristophanes sums up the most desirable masculine features: "a gleaming chest, bright skin, broad shoulders, tiny tongue, strong buttocks, and a little prick."
AND NOW Y'ALL KNOW.