Throughout much of history, the nude male figure was virtually the only subject that could be used to articulate homoerotic desire in publicly displayed works of art. In most cases, representations of nude males were intended to embody the spiritual and political ideals of the societies in which they were produced. Only rarely were erotic qualities overtly emphasized in public works. Nevertheless, artists, patrons, and viewers who recognized the sensual appeal of these figures almost certainly exploited them to nourish their romantic lives.
In many cultures, sexually explicit depictions of male nudes were confined to works of art intended for discreet, private “consumption.” Unfortunately, the study of these images has been inhibited by the efforts of successive waves of conservative political and religious groups, who have sought to find and destroy “offensive” erotic works.
For a variety of reasons, most modern scholars have been reluctant to study and publish extant images. The recovery and systematic analysis of visual expressions of homoerotic desire in earlier cultures remain urgent tasks for scholars.
In the post-Stonewall era, many artists have publicly exhibited images of nude men infused with erotic desire. Moreover, contemporary artists have utilized nude figures to explain complex political, social, and spiritual issues from distinctly queer perspectives.
Because the nude male has been a major theme in the visual arts, this article can mention only representative examples from various periods; important artists and works are necessarily omitted. For the purposes of this essay, the terms gay and queer are used to refer to any images relevant to the study of same-sex love. However, these modern categories do not adequately express the open-ended understanding of sexuality characteristic of many earlier cultures.
A fluid conception of sexuality characterized the ancient civilizations of India. Among the major living religions, Hinduism was unique in celebrating all manifestations of sexuality as means to transcend the limits of temporal, earthly existence and to attain unity with the divine principle.
In accord with these beliefs, the exteriors of many temple complexes in India originally were covered by sculptural figures of men and women enthusiastically engaged in all kinds of sexual play. These images simultaneously represented both deities and ordinary mortals.
Although mixed gender configurations predominated, same-sex couples and groups also were shown. Successive waves of Islamic and British invaders succeeded in destroying most of the sexual scenes on Hindu temples, but some examples have remained intact, as at the Vishvanatha Temple at Khajuraho (950-1050).
In contrast to later Western practice, ancient Greek culture esteemed erotic bonds among men, believing that they could, among other positive contributions, encourage heroism in war.
Thus, for example, it was generally recognized that Harmodius and Aristogiton, who established democracy in Athens through their courageous attack on dictatorship in 514 B.C.E., were devoted lovers. The Tyrannicide Monument (477 B.C.E., based upon the original of 510 B.C.E.) was erected in Athens to commemorate their patriotic achievement.
This monument has great importance in art history as one of the earliest and most impressive manifestations of the characteristic Classical Greek expression of social values through the use of idealized, but anatomically correct nude male figures.
The emotional rapport of the men is suggested by the way that Aristogiton extends his arm, as if to shield his partner from attack. However, their relationship is not otherwise indicated; the public context of the sculptural monument restrained the explicit expression of their love, which was, however, readily acknowledged in written sources.
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