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Martin Foreman

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Whose Disciples? and other thoughts prompted by the male nude
Musée D'Orsay, Paris

Paris, France, February 2008: An exotic, pastoral scene. A long-haired, long-bearded man in his thirties in a white robe is lecturing, in a manner that is firm but kind, to an informal group of twelve young men, all of whom are listening intently. Most of the students are naked; the others are draped by cloth that will shortly fall to the ground. All have long curly locks and smooth well-defined bodies, although only a couple appear athletic; the rest are fetchingly few. Six are in pairs, arms draped round each other in an attitude that combines brotherly and erotic love.

A novel perspective on Christ and his disciples, I thought as I strolled up towards the label on the wall. I was wrong; the painting was Plato's School by Jean Delville. Not a name I was familiar with. A couple of days later, back in London, I google'd him. Belgian, born 1867 and dying in 1953, Delville produced a number of familiar works in the romantic mode common in the 19th century, many reflecting his interest in such myths and spiritual teachings as Rosicrcucianism and Neoplatonism. You've probably seen reproductions of his The God-Man and The Treasures of Satan, without knowing who was the artist, or indeed subject matter.

I didn't look hard online and I didn't find any reference to Delville's sexual leanings. A cursory glance suggested that he painted women more often than men, more often clothed than not. Anyway, I was interested less in the man's private life than in the obviously intentional parallel between the nominal and suggested subject matter. The nudes certainly made sense in Plato's School - young Greek men trained and practised athletics naked. But if the philosopher had to be clothed, why was he not wearing a Greek toga - an item that Delville would have been familiar with? The allusion to Christ must therefore be intentional, and it fits with ideas that the artist subscribed to, that all the greater teachers had something in common. For more on the artist, click here, here and here

Plato and his disciples were the sixth or seventh display of male nudity that I had come across in this, my first, visit to the Musée d'Orsay in Paris. Earlier, on the ground floor, I had passed several statues of exuberant unclothed adolescents. My favourite was this youth, who had apparently lost all his clothes - and, I suspect, his virginity - in the Venice Carnival, but managed to retain his all-important mask and cup of wine.

All praise to the sculptor (I've lost his name and the title of his work) who managed to capture such joie de vivre. If we are lucky enough to experience just one such moment in our lives we can die happy.

Not far from the Delville was a painter whose work I recognised, although not his subject matter. Edward Burnes-Jones (1833 - 1898) is better known for his wan women than his muscular young men, so I
found his Wheel of Fortune (below) a welcome diversion.

The idea is an old one. Those of us who are low on the social ladder today may find ourselves at the top tomorrow and vice versa - and another turn of the wheel may bring us back to where we started. But while most representations show wealth and health at the zenith and poverty and illness at the nadir, by stripping the men bare and giving them almost identical expressions, Burnes-Jones' image implies there is little to choose between the lives of the rich and the poor.

Let me follow that thought a little further... It's often pointed out that we are all naked beneath our clothes and that wealth and power are no guarantee of happiness. Furthermore, in the sexual highways and byways of the gay world, where we are no more than our bodies and our minds, power and money may be irrelevant or reversed. These perspectives allow us to see that the Wheel of Fortune is an illusion - at least as long as we are young and hunky ...

There was much more nudity in the d'Orsay. Here are a couple more examples. On the right we have the Eagle Hunters, a 1900 sculpture by Jules Coutan. Several other pieces in the museum include both men and women, unclothed and in straining postures that reveal their muscles, primary and secondary sexual characteristics.

In general I prefer the Victorian, beautiful and anatomically accurate to the cubist or modernist interpretations of the male form, but I make room for exceptions. Here (below) is Antoine Bourdelle's Hercules the Archer, which I was surprised to see was completed in 1909. It combines both a modern sensibility and the strong lines seen in surviving Greek pottery.

For naked men in Berlin, click here.

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