On the phenomenon of nudity and the role of the phallic symbol in the European art history and its modern interpretation.
In 2016 in Saint Petersburg, a scandal broke when a copy of the statue of Michelangelo’s David appeared on Kirochnaya Street in the heart of the cultural capital of Russia. The temporary sculpture was erected as a part of a multimedia exhibition of the great master ща Late Renaissance housed in the St. Anne’s Church. Yet the distinctive image of a young Jewish king appalled a local citizen filled with righteous anger and caused a flurry of debate all over Russian websites.
“How could they put a man with no pants in the very center of St. Petersburg, near the school and the church? This giant cripples children’s souls!”
What is it: the result of one person’s lack of education or a wake-up call for our society suggesting that our cultural paradigm has shifted, we’ve got lost in the art world, and now follow our uncertain path? We cannot yet answer this question. However, we can examine the attitude towards male nudity in art history and across cultures.
The phallic symbol in art first appears as the patriarchy arises. The dating is relative (6000-4000 BCE) and is linked to prehistoric social developments such as agriculture and domestication. Some scholars link the spread of patriarchy with the period when the concept of fatherhood took root. As we know, in early primitive societies the family as a social institution didn’t exist and the children were raised communally. In such societies, the woman held most of the power as her reproductive function was much in demand. She was the one to continue the family. Examples of matrilineality are still traced in Jewish communities where the descent is traced through the maternal line. It would be incorrect to consider this social system a matriarchy in its modern usage with females holding primary positions in the family. There is a theory of egalitarian society (where all people have equal rights and the same access to the benefits, such as food, clothes, etc.), while the shift to patriarchy has led to the emergence of the new cultural and artistic phallic phenomenon. At an early stage of primitive (paleolithic) art, drawings of humans were rare, the most common subjects in cave paintings were animals. Yet the depictions of the female reproductive organs are frequently found.
The male representations are seldom and relate to some hunting magic, not the means of reproduction.
Corrida at the Lascaux Cave
The Sorcerer at the Cave of the Trois-Frères
The situation changes dramatically during the Neolithic age with the emergence of the first civilizations when new social structures and male roles are being formed. Gender roles are shifting from the female womb to the male semen. The examples are found in early Greek myths where Gaia is the ancestral mother of all life, and the primal deity of the Earth and Zeus is a supreme deity ruling as king of the gods. This shift from passive to active gives us reason to believe that the nature of the early depictions of the phallic symbols is sacred.
In ancient Egypt, the phallus was a symbol of the triumph of life over death. As illustrated by the myth of Isis, who retrieved the pieces of the Osiris’s body cut by Set, except for his penis and crafted a spare one with clay breathing life into it. The scene appears to be the first artistic depiction of fellatio.
In Ancient Rome the phallus was a symbol of fertility (that is why there are so many pendants shaped like a penis).
In Ancient Greece, the images of erect phallus represented the chthonian force.
Ancient art wasn’t ashamed of male nudity. The worshiped objects shouldn’t have been hidden from the eyes. The bearer of a sacral object couldn’t be ugly. His body, image, and spirit were idolized. Still, that didn’t stop ancient Greek artisans from capturing minor details of their everyday life like pubic hairstyles. Even the brief analysis of the statues from the Acropolis Museum in Athens allows making this assumption. Sometimes mundane realism just happens to intrude on the high art.
The attitude towards male genitals gets far more complex and contradictory in the Middle Ages. Everything related to reproduction, sex, and the cult of the body is treated as sin and taboo. How does it affect art? On the one hand, the portrayal of the nude body is banned (unless the private parts are shamefully covered with plants or discreetly draped). On the other hand, vivid images are found in the folk culture as an echo of pagan beliefs occurring on the walls of the votive sites and among the erotic drawings in the margins evoking humor. The phallus portrayal turns into the symbol of the counter-culture and the culture of popular laughter of the Middle Ages.
The forbidden is laughed at, though remains an integral part of the culture.
Renaissance rediscovers classical antiquity and enriches art world with the motifs of the Greek and Roman myths bringing nudity back. But was the society ready to embrace the depictions of a nude body?
The work of the great Michelangelo on the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling exceeded the grandest expectation of the commissioners, educated people who valued and collected antique art.
Was it appropriate to portray God and the saints naked? The Vatican couldn’t accept the artist’s ideas bringing together Christian saints and ancient deities. A painter Daniele da Volterra delicately covered the genitals with vestments and earned the nickname Il Braghettone or the breeches maker.
However, the world was moving forward, and the culture was evolving along with it. The celebration of the human body marked the Baroque Period. From now on the characters look frivolously brazen, unashamed of their nudity. The art is imbued with erotica and lust for pleasures. The images are deprived of their sacred or mystical sense. A penis is a penis and is used as intended.
Guido Reni. Drinking Bacchus
Caravaggio. Amor Vincit Omnia
The Age of Reason produces Classicism provoking painters to turn to antiquity, though in a formal manner. Academic painting strives for idealization creating cold, flameless, though aesthetically perfect imagery.
Jean Ingres. Grande Odalisque
Decadence was a significant period in art history. European artists’ discovery of shunga, Japanese erotic woodblock prints, has led to the spread of erotic art.
Aubrey Beardsley creates a series of illustrations defining the phallus within the framework of the secret erotomania. Austrian modernist artist Egon Schiele in his self-portraits captures the act of masturbation. Through his blatant drawings, he explores the boundaries of his self.
In the mid-20th century, conceptual art is revising the idea of the phallic symbol. A penis is associated with the real self and body of an artist (take the performance art of Ulay or the Viennese actionists).
Denudation is often followed by violent acts as the artists’ reaction to the war and totalitarian society.
In the contemporary culture, the phallic image tends to stand for the symbol of protest.
On June 14, 2010, art-group Voina (War) painted a giant phallus on the surface of the Liteyny drawbridge in St. Petersburg and named it Dick Captured by the FSB. After six months the work was awarded the Innovation Prize in Contemporary Visual Art.
Funny, but could it be related to the fact that in the fall of 2010 V. V. Vinogradov Russian Language Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences excluded the lexical unit хуй (dick) from the contemporary Russian language?
The broader perspective helps us make connections between the verbal description and the visual image. So, the long-lived tradition of writing the word хуй (dick) on a wall has already transformed from the simple act of vandalism to the sacred ritual: blessing the wall with a symbol of fertility.