Desirability and domination: Greek sculpture and the modern male body (23 June 2011)

Uploaded by UCLLHL on 28.06.2011

>> Well, thank you very much indeed,
for the fabulous introduction, and I do hope I can live up to
that in the brief time that we have together, and I'm very,
very honored to be here talking about male nudes
in the British Museum.
>> [Inaudible.]
>> Can you not hear very well?
Is that any better now?
Is that -- can you hear now?
I'm talking about -- that's it --
I'm talking about the various ways that ancient statues
of male nudes have been used to shape the modern male body,
and how providing those modern male bodies
with classical dimensions have allowed those bodies
to say something about power and sexuality, which are the desire
and the domination of my title.
So a founding text for the way we look at,
the way we understand, ancient Greek statues of the male nude,
is a German analysis of Greek art published in 1764.
It's called "The History of the Art of Antiquity,"
by Johann Winckelmann.
And here, you see a rather lovely painting
of the rather luxuriating way in which he is working
on his analysis of classical statues,
and if only all us academics could spend our time dressed
in that way as we study the ancient world,
everything would be right with the world.
He was especially interested in four male nudes that were housed
in the Belvedere Courtyard in the Vatican in Rome,
which you can still see there today.
He treated those nudes as the most important masterpieces
of ancient art, and they -- the interest in them,
this description of them as the most perfect pieces of art,
were usurped in the early 19th century, when they were replaced
as ideals by the display of the Parthenon marbles,
some of which you can now see in the British Museum.
But his readings of these four male nudes were widely
influential, so influential that they are often the basis
on which modern guide books describe how
to understand Greek statuary, and they're very revealing
for both their political and their homoerotic content.
And for example, the Laocoon that you see here,
where the father is attempting to fight off the snakes
that are going to kill his children, were described --
this statue was described by Winckelmann as an example
of male heroism in extremity, an embodiment
of the individual's violent struggle for freedom,
an active muscular hero.
Correspondingly, the Belvedere Torso, which you see next to it,
was imagined by Winckelmann as a representation
of the hero Hercules; Hercules, after he has died,
after he has ascended to join the Olympians, Hercules,
in contemplation of his past strength
and his past achievements.
Winckelmann saw these two statues as the perfect examples
of a muscular masculinity, an active, powerful male,
a self in conflict with the world.
In contrast, when he wrote about these other two statues,
the Belvedere Antinous, he argued that the statue
of Antinous was the statue of a Greek hero,
whereas we understand it today to be the image of the lover
of the Emperor Hadrian.
What interested him about this statue is
that there's no active display of physical power.
He describes it in terms of its beauty
as a sensual and a tranquil body.
A spectator, who he always imagines to be a maple,
is invited to look at this depiction of a youth
who is self-absorbed, a youth whose absorption the spectator
intrudes into.
Next to it we have the Belvedere Apollo, which Winckelmann saw
as a complex mix of the presentation
of power and erotic beauty.
He saw the statue as an example of the god Apollo
in the aftermath of his victory, fighting a snake whose parts
of whom you can see sort of round the piece of tree
that he's leaning against.
So this is supposed to be an image of Apollo
after he has shot a serpent with his arrow.
And so for Winckelmann it becomes an image
of a divinely powerful male self, but a male self at ease,
a male self after combat, a hard manliness melting into ease,
and the release of the arrow, of course,
suggests a kind of sexual relaxation.
So this statue in particular,
became Winckelmann's ideal male figure, and achieved
that idealism within 18th century culture,
a focus for spectators' fantasies about male domination
and tender desirability.
Now, there are many contexts in which we could now look
at these sorts of statues, and the influence
of the way Winckelmann read them on modern male bodies.
For example, we could look at the 1920s and 1930s
in Nazi Germany .We could look at the way, the proportions
of Greek statuary, the ideology of power associated with them,
was taken over by Major Hanssuren and used
to train the bodies of German soldiers.
Hitler was a bit concerned about the nudity
of this type of training.
The image of the Greek statuary is also taken up in Nazi art
and is documented in the filming of the Berlin Olympics in 1936.
Famously, the first of the two films that were made
by Leni Riefenstahl about the Berlin Olympics,
contains an opening scene in which the celebrated statue
by Myron of the Discus Thrower, the Roman copy
of which you can see here in the British Museum.
The statue of the ancient discus thrower dissolves into the body
of a German Olympic competitor.
So we have an example on film of this idea
of classical statuary feeding into modern bodies,
and having very important significances in terms
of politics and domination.
But I don't want to talk about anything like that today.
I want to talk about body building.
I want to talk about popular culture, because although
or perhaps because I am a professor of Latin,
I also happen to be very interested in the presence
of antiquity in cinema, as Ian so kindly mentioned.
And the reason that I am speaking about statuary
in this way and about body building, is because as someone
who is interested in antiquity in cinema,
I came across a very strange genre of Italian films,
Italian films which nowadays are known as Peppler,
or Sword-and-Sandal films, or sometimes Spaghetti Epics.
And they were a series of films made, largely in the 1950s
and the 1960s, with very specific
and rather odd characteristics.
The narratives were always centered
around strong-men heroes, predominantly,
but not exclusively, Hercules, sometimes Sampson,
and various others of that kind.
The hero is generally played by an American body builder, or,
if he's played by an Italian, as these films were all made
in Italy, the Italian who played the lead role,
would take on an appropriate American-sounding pseudonym.
So of the names listed in these posters, Reg Park, Gordon Scott,
Mark Forest, not all of these are actually Americans.
Some are Italians posing as Americans.
And trying to understand what role antiquity had
in these films, why these films were made in the 1950s in Italy
with Hercules played by an American body builder,
took me back to a study of the relationship
between body building and the ancient world
and the relationship between body building and statues,
right at the start of the practice of body building.
So body building begins in the late 19th century.
It arises out of the feats of strength performed
in circuses and fun fairs.
Circus programs would include not just moments
where the strongman would bend on bars, break chains,
wrestle with lions, lift weights, but also moments
that were wholly focused on the representation
of classical figures, a rather static moment
when strength is simply put on display and is not used.
The history of body building proper really begins
with the strongman Eugene Sandow, who you can see
in these rather beautiful images here.
He would not just pose lifting human dumbbells,
as he so described in the poster here,
but he would also appear just statically wearing a fig leaf
or a large -- an animal skin loincloth,
posed against classical props, in this case a catching pillar,
sometimes carrying a prop-like club.
And he would be wearing bronze body paint.
He would step inside a glass case, and he would pose
in a series of classical positions set to music.
Now, that's a rather extraordinary combination
of things to be doing in a late 19th century circus show.
Some of the poses were very close imitations
of celebrated statues from antiquity, and the master
of ceremonies would shout out the name of the classical statue
that Sandow was posing as.
The Dying Gaul, he would say in this particular case,
or Hercules, the Farnese Hercules,
which is a particular version, very famous one, of the image
of Hercules at ease with the mean lion's skin
that he is leaning against.
Now, you can see particularly in these two images,
the great effort that took place to reconstruct the poses
of classical statues, right down to the definition
of the abdominal muscles, of Eugene Sandow.
And these acts were advertised in terms
of displaying not the strongest man in the world,
but the most perfect man in the world,
which is an interesting change from strong to perfect.
The advertisements for these sorts of shows would claim
that Sandow had been a weakling until inspired by a statue
of Hercules to embark on a program
of physical self improvement.
Now, we might ask, why would strongmen do this sort of thing
in the late 19th century?
We can see that perhaps one reason is the relationship
to classical art, the relationship
to classical statuary, gives a justification for the display
of male who does not use his muscles,
but simply puts them on show.
It gives a rational legitimacy to the display of the body,
but also a justification for looking at that body,
because we are now invited to look as if we were looking
at a Greek statue, and therefore,
the whole ritual is constructed as an experience like going
through a living museum.
Imagine all the statues
in the British Museum being posed in this sort of way.
That would frighten us.
So we can also see that one of the features,
one of the explanations for why body builders might have
initiated this kind of ritual and constructed
so close a relationship to Greek classical statues is it clearly
gave a cultural prestige to a mass form of entertainment--
the circus show, the entertainment
of the working classes, an entertainment
about the improvement of the body rather than the mind.
And of course, classical Greek statues were associated
with beauty, proportion, symmetry,
as well as muscular power.
And so Greek statues could give
to body building a moral legitimacy,
a sense of self-improvement, not just about the body
but in a kind of moral way as well.
So the classical ideal didn't just stay
within that glass container in the fun fair show.
The classical ideal was then commercialized,
sold to the public through body building competitions,
through physique magazines like this one, a very early example
of physical culture from 1899.
And here you see the editor of that magazine, Bernard McFadden,
on the cover and inside in what are described
as "classical poses."
The magazines of this type would also advertise products
for sale, products that could turn any man
into a modern Hercules.
And note, of course, the union in the title of "physical"
and "culture," and we see what Greece is doing
for the body builder.
Perhaps the most famous figure to suggest
that he could improve you, turn you into a proper man,
was Angelo Siciliano, otherwise known as Charles Atlas.
He interestingly here, again, is not described
as the world's strongest man,
but the world's most handsome man.
You can see a kind of superficial attempt
to repress the erotic readings of Greek statues
that Winckelmann had undertaken, by replacing the erotic
with this idea of beauty, of aesthetics, of handsomeness.
Very interestingly, this invitation
that Charles Atlas offered famously in his advertisements,
the "insult" on the beach, where the sand gets kicked
into the weakling's face and the weakling then undertakes the
Charles Atlas program that "made a man out of Mac.":
This has been read as a route to Americanization for immigrants
into the United states, that through one's body as a member
of the laboring classes, through one's body,
one could be transformed from an Italian immigrant
to a rounded full American.
And interesting that it should be done through an attempt
to model one's self on the shape of Hercules.
Now, after World War II, some physique magazines began
to circulate in the emerging gay community,
such as this one called "Physique Pictorial."
And it can become quite interesting to see
which magazines might have been ones explicitly addressing
themselves to the gay community, which were ones
that were ostensibly straight examples of the presentation
of the benefits of fitness and health.
It's not always easy to discriminate them,
and that was the whole point.
In these sorts of homoerotic magazines, Greek athletics
of art is regularly used as a circumlocution
for homoeroticism, again, an opportunity at justification
for posing nude and for looking at such images.
It was a way of safeguarding mass-produced
but privately consumed visualizations of gay desire
at a time when you could not have been explicit.
So here we have Physique Pictorial,
the first of the all nude, all male fitness magazines,
and we can see that classicism is literally a cover --
the one on the left is called the Young Physique;
the other is Physique Pictorial.
You can see classicism as a cover, a legitimacy
for displaying the body, but also, of course,
a suggestiveness, because we all know about the sexuality
of the ancient Greeks.
And so now we can allow the surfacing
of the homoerotic dimension that Winckelmann had seen
in the ancient Greek statue.
And the magazines play sometimes quite funnily and suggestively
with this idea that what lurks around these poses,
these classical poses, is actually homoerotic desire.
So we have a justification for the pleasure of looking
at such images, and we find that our models are often surrounded
or propped against suitably suggestive paraphernalia.
I was going to show some very suggestive paraphernalia,
but my nine-year-old daughter came to say goodnight
to me yesterday, so I had to kind of tone it down a bit.
So we have, for example, the language
of Greek sculpture used quite explicitly in these magazines.
In this particular illustration, the caption tells us
that the muscles of the model are tapering from the deltoids
to the waist in a fine precipitin line,
and that's what the text actually says.
So the text provides a Greekness, a relationship
to Greek statutory in order to justify the pose
and the looking at the pose.
Sometimes these captions are very playful.
You would perhaps not think that this particular person,
Vick Carlisle, was lying
in an especially classical sort of way.
However, the caption provides the Greek coding, if you like,
for how to understand how to experience the look at this boy.
We're told he's 20 years, he's five foot eight tall,
he's 151 pounds, he works in a Los Angeles sports store,
he reads and collects the classics, he spends many hours
in art galleries studying sculpture and the old masters.
And that's all you need to give you legitimacy
for the display and the look.
By the 1950s, filmmakers were producing home videos
to circulate on the legitimate market, and they, too,
needed to find a way of dealing
with the very stringent state censorship.
Of course, in the subcultural world,
there would be many more explicit images, but magazines
that were being sold and distributed through the post,
films that were being sent out on the legitimate market,
had to work with this kind of coding.
In one such film from Detroit in 1954 called "In the Days
of Greek Gods" -- so think of the title, "In the Days
of Greek Gods" -- the little film opens
with three body builders at home,
who decide to compare their poses to Greek statues
because one of them has been reading a book
about Greek statuary.
And then successively, you see a still of a Greek statue followed
by the body builder posing in that style.
I would have shown you a clip from this video,
but unfortunately, after all these years it has now corroded
too much to be able to see really what is going on.
But it's very interesting, the playful hints
that the film gives about homoeroticism,
because when the first body builder poses as Apollo,
we're told Apollo was a vigorous youth, naked but for his cloak.
Hercules, we're told, once dressed in women's clothing,
and Narcissus, perhaps most tellingly of all, we're told,
pined away in desire for himself.
The three of the body builders, after posing as Apollo,
Hercules, and Narcissus, then head off for a cooling shower.
At this point, we can see how Winckelmann's homoerotic
readings of Greek male nudes have filtered all the way
through to mass culture.
Now, just by the time we get to the late '50s,
classical circumventions, the classical alibi, as it's called,
disappeared from the gay market.
It was no longer needed.
The legal barriers for more sexually explicit imagery
had collapsed.
There was a possibility
of showing much more explicit representations
of the male body.
Gay desire could start to speak its name.
So no need for the body building fitness alibi,
no need for the classical art alibi.
And just as that classical veneer fell away
from the now explicit gay culture,
there emerges the Italian epic, the Spaghetti Epic,
the Sword-and-Sandal film.
The very first of them was made in 1957.
It was called "Hercules,"
and it starred the American body builder, Steve Reeves.
Now, this type of film, this first film, sorry, I should say,
spawned a whole series of musclemen movies.
More than 170 were made in Italy in a very short period,
from 1957 to 1965, which is very intriguing as a film historian
or a classicist, why this tiny little sort
of moment has all these peculiarities in this genre.
Now, the characteristics of these films were
that the classical hero was always played
by a professional body builder.
A professional body builder who we've seen is always presented
as an American, especially in the surrounding publicity.
They were made in Italy, they were very cheaply produced,
and they were directed very explicitly
at the Italian working class market.
They were not shown in the big cinemas in the big cities.
If any of you have seen Cinema Paradiso, there is a moment
in that film when the village gather in the square
to see a film projected on a wall,
and it's a film starring Kirk Douglas and Ulysses,
which is a kind of bridging film between the Hollywood epic
and these Italian Spaghetti Epics.
So it's in that kind of context these films were shown.
The narrative is given a very sort
of vaguely classical context.
It's almost invariably about a community
who is victimized by a tyrant.
In the case of the first film, Hercules helps
to put the rightful King, Jason, back on the throne
that has been taken by a usurper,
and here we see Hercules at a climactic moment in the film,
pulling down the palace of the tyrant,
in a pose clearly borrowed
from the tradition of the circus show.
The narrative is very simple, very moralistic.
Hercules is a hero pure as sunlight, gifted with strength
and intelligence, a challenge to all evil.
In the bottom image on the left, you see him being cleansed
by a divine fall of rain.
Now, we might want to ask -- this was my original question --
why such films would be produced initially the postwar period,
and then why be distributed in Europe and the United States?
And one thing that becomes very clear is they're produced
in this period because it's a period of the reconstruction
of Italy postwar, the period of the martial plan
when the United States was supporting the Italian economy.
It becomes really interesting to see
that Hercules can actually be a code for American,
because of the history now of body building
in the United States, because the publicity presents the hero
as an American playing a classical figure.
So we have these peculiar moments of status in the films
when the body builder takes up body building type poses.
We have a film where the hero always comes
from outside the community and rights all its wrongs.
It's a bit like Star Trek, if you think about it --
rights all the wrongs, restores the status quo,
represents freedom, virility, and the American way of life.
You notice, for example, in the still from this film at the top,
how distinct Hercules is -- Steve Reeves --
from the other heroes in the film in terms of his body shape.
He is the American in this film;
the others are weaker Italians, if you like.
And it's important to note how enormously popular these
films were.
They had a very important place in popular culture.
They didn't just end up in all the minor flea pit cinemas
of Italy.
They also traveled rather successfully
around the United States.
They were disseminated
with local competitions looking for Mr. Hercules.
There were Hercules comic books, Hercules hamburgers,
Hercules sport shirts, all of which carried the contours,
not of the Farnese Hercules now,
but of our new American Hercules, Steve Reeves.
Steve Reeves also subsequently as I will finish by saying,
became an icon, and so the doll figure you see
on the right is not an original from the late 1950s but one
that is still on sale on various Web sites should you so desire.
On the left, what you see is a kind
of premiere party celebrating the arrival
of Hercules in the United States.
The classical body here has been converted
into a mass cultural commodity.
It's used as a way rather strangely, you might imagine,
of linking masculinity, muscle, and American dominance.
America is coming to save Europe.
That is the message of the films.
But it's very hard to repress Winckelmann's reading
of the Greek male nude, not least because of the culture
out of which the statuary came.
And what these films attempt
to do is embed admiring female spectators into their narratives
in order to straighten Hercules out.
They were not particularly successful, and Steve Reeves,
as Hercules, then reappeared in magazines
such as Physique Pictorial -- now, not as Steve Reeve,
the body builder who was Mr. America and Mr. Universe,
but Steve Reeves as Hercules.
And so -- and this is where I will finish --
his Hercules films were appropriated eventually
in the late '50s, early '60s, by a gay subculture.
They became -- they were read as examples
of the highest possible camp,
and Steve Reeves became a gay icon,
and I thought this was a fab image to finish with.
Here he is as a painting on the front cover of Adonis
with his lovely lightning rods in his hands.
So in this little tour of the history of body building
and the place largely of Hercules in it,
you can see that the classical male nude has been used
to shape modern male bodies, and that the idea
of what the classical male nude represents has then
in turn been shaped by those modern uses.
The classical statuary has been converted
into a mass cultural commodity,
a commodity that tells us some very interesting tales
about domination and desirability.
Thank you very much indeed.
[ Applause ]
>> See what I mean?
Exciting! And is it warm in here, or is it just me?
>> It's quite stuffy.
>> I brought Maria a present,
in case it has raised the temperature.
>> Oh, wow!
>> It's a Discobolus fan.
Every woman should have one.
Every man should have one.
And it's -- the Discobolus, the British Museum Discobolus
that is on its world tour, currently in Tokyo,
having been in Kobe where the exhibition,
the Greek Body Beautiful, opened on the day
of the Tsunami, I'm sorry to say.
But I was thinking, you know, of all of those sculptures
that Maria showed, probably the Discobolus is the only one now
that represents a cultural common coin.
And it says something about the power of the Greeks,
that these body builders could invoke sculptures
that will be readily recognizable.
Nobody could do that now, and I think probably
if you would stand out in Great Russell Street with a flip chart
of various sculptures and asked people to identify,
one including Michelangelo's David, the Venus de Milo,
the Layo Kalan, and so on, I think this is the only one
that you'd have any chance of getting recognition from.
Maria said she will take a couple
of questions if anybody has them.
Yes, sir?
>> Yes, just two points about the [inaudible].
Really, why the 1890s, is that partly to do with developments
in photography, and how were they connected?
And also the time, and you read in literature the time --
for example, Edith Wardon is one example,
there's quite fondness among certain classes for tabloids,
historical and classical tabloids, and I wonder
if that had a connection as well.
>> I think certainly photography is very important, and one thing
that I didn't mention is the way in which the poses
as classical statues by nude males features very strongly
in the early pornographic circulation of photographs.
And there's obviously a relationship between that kind
of posing and the sort of posing that is done in circus shows.
But I think the class issue is a really interesting one,
and there was also a strong interest in dressing
up as classical figures,
or in constructing tabloid among the educated, the elite classes.
But what distinguishes this activity is the focus
on the body itself.
This is not about dressing as or taking on the character of;
this is about becoming
in the most visceral sense, a classical figure.
And I think that's quite a distinctive part of this sort
of working class entertainment
that is really worth further exploration.
>> Anybody else?
>> When you look at that body shape there, even it's called --
the magazine is called Adonis, which is a very classical name,
of course, the body shape is very different to the classical,
the perfect forms they were showing off.
Is there any particular reason for this evolution away
from these classical body shape,
even if the poses are somewhat similar?
>> I think there is a clear development
within the body building culture for bigger, bulkier,
more defined, in a way
that eventually completely disconnects its connection
with classical statuary .
And partly it's to do I would imagine,
with trying to be bigger and bigger
than previous body builders, but also with the development
of shall we say, chemical enhancements.
I did, as part of this research some years ago,
go to a body building competition
to see whether there's any survival of this kind
of classicizing role in the most modern body building,
and there's almost none.
The only time I could find it in the most modern literature,
is when there was an attempt made in some
of the body building magazines, to put forward body building
as an Olympic activity,
which they had tremendous difficulty with,
because body builders pose.
They don't actually -- they're not
like the strongmen in Olympic sports.
And because of that distinction, they turn to the classical theme
and to the issue that they represent themselves classical
statues as a rhetoric.
But if you actually look at the images and the ways
in which they pose, they have ceased to look
like those classical statues.
So they sort of free themselves from the poses if you like.
>> Maria, this has been a course
about the white male body beautiful, and just thinking
about the black male body beautiful,
and there certainly are examples of -- a lot of them --
of black men being posed as classical statues.
And I can think more of contemporary --
contemporary photography by Robert Shackleford and others.
But I wondered what you yourself had found in this respect.
>> Most of the early literature is very light, and what you find
in the Peppler, the Italian Spaghetti Epics,
is that after awhile, a black body builder can be a sidekick,
as they can be in the modern Hollywood epics,
but they are never the hero.
And I have not explored
in detail whether blackness then becomes a difficulty in trying
to use classical imagery.
I've also not, for example, looked at female body builders,
which would be a very interesting project,
to see if body building began so closely aligned
to the physiques of Greek statues.
What do women do, and how do women present their traditions?
And clearly, that is a project worth exploring as well,
both issues of race and gender.
>> [Inaudible.]
>> Sorry, just a moment, mike.
>> It's not really a question, it's just a comment.
I just wanted to say
that current mistreatment who's a friend
of my daughter's is black, actually.
>> Thank you very much for what had
to be rather a brief overview.
But can you throw any light on the parent contrast,
and perhaps explain the German mindset, particularly
in the 1930s, when Dr. Hirschfield's research was
repressed and homosexuality, Rome, for example, in the SA,
homosexuality was brutality suppressed, in that period
and during the war, along
with other repressed groups like the Jews.
And yes, at the same time, the admiration
for the strong male figure and fitness, both among the young
and older, in organized games and sports.
How do you explain that contrast in the mindset?
>> Well, I don't in the sense that I think one of the --
one of the many interesting things about this relationship
to antiquity and the use of antiquity,
is that often it's extremely problematic,
because there's a tendency, either at the level
of the nation down to the level of the individual,
to select an aspect of antiquity that is what you want to use
in your particular context.
But you can't believe the other aspects of antiquity behind,
and so other people can read what you're doing very
differently from your own vision of what that relationship is.
And that's why particularly the issue of homoeroticism is
so interesting, because it seems to me you can never take
that away from classical Greek statuary or the relationship
to ancient Greece, no matter how hard you try.
But then there are other moments when people do try very hard
to eradicate that aspect
of one's potential relationship to the ancient world.
But it's a common issue with, for example,
if one is modeling one's nation on ancient Rome
as a good republic, there's always the potential
that you might turn into the corrupt empire.
So the ancient world is good to work with, or at least difficult
to work with, depending on which way you look at it,
because it can always be read differently, that relationship.
But there is a lot of work done in this area on the relationship
of Nazi Germany, both ideologically
and in practical life in relation to ancient Greece
and the difficulties that had to be negotiated.
There is a lot of work on that,
but it's not something I have touched upon.
>> Well, it's been wonderful, and I'm sure we could go on,
but the room has other guests waiting for it.
So would I ask you to put your hands together
to appreciate Maria's very entertaining speech.
Thank you.