“One is not born, but rather, becomes a woman. No biological, psychological, or economic destiny defines the figure that the human female acquires in society,” wrote Simone de Beauvoir in 1949 in The Second Sex. This statement has been echoed over and over by feminists of all stripes, it has penetrated into people’s consciousness, and even found resonance in pop culture as recently as last year, when the group Iñigo Montoya put the philosopher’s ideas to music. But what about man?
The exhibition “Masculinities: Liberation through Photography” tackles the issue. “We are not used to seeing men, their bodies, represented as both heroic and aging, vulnerable and violent. The exhibition examines and deconstructs many archetypes and stereotypes of masculinity,” explains Alona Pardo. Diving the exhibition into six segments, the curator explores representations of masculinity, or rather, masculinities. For “there is no single ideal masculinity, even if that is what we have been led to believe.”
The works of 55 artists brought together in Arles show disabled men, tender fathers, caring sons, queer men, and soldiers revealing their vulnerable side. There is little room here for the “tough guy,” master of his emotions, dominating the world and others.
The first and most important segment of the exhibition was designed to shed light on the “pervasive stereotypes of hegemonic heterosexual and heteronormative masculinity embodied in the ideal of the soldier, the cowboy, and the athlete.” We come across images by Robert Mapplethorpe in which the bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger seems to epitomize triumphant virility to a lesser degree than his female counterpart Lisa Lyon. A series by Thomas Dworzak also breaks down preconceived notions: colorful portraits of heavily made-up men, some interlocking fingers with a friend who is similarly wearing kohl and a turban. These men with apparently feminine attitudes are Taliban.
Further along, we examine representations of male power, such as exerted by the gentlemen photographed by Karen Knorr in poses and settings typical of men-only clubs and other sites of male sociability.
Another segment takes a look at family and fatherhood. Masahisa Fukase photographs himself with his family, showing how his and his father’s bodies develop and change over the years. Hans Eijkelboom invites himself into strangers’ homes and takes the place of the father in family portraits of astonishing authenticity.
The exhibition also looks at the emergence of a queer aesthetic, featuring gay men or people playing with gender archetypes: hoodlums photographed by Karlheinz Weinberger in the early 1960s; men orgasming portrayed by Peter Hujar; women sporting moustaches, beards, and male accessories captured by Catherine Opie’s lens.
One entire segment is devoted to representations of black masculinity which question the negative stereotypes often attached to it in Western societies. A young Samuel Fosso creates self-portraits, wearing different outfits representing characters as diverse as they are flamboyant.
The final portion of the exhibition zooms in on the way women look at men in a kind of inversion of the “male gaze.” Here we find the work of Marianne Wex who analyzes posturing and the physical presence of men in public space. There are also shots of surfers changing in and out of their wetsuits taken by Tracey Moffatt; some, noticing the camera, seem to flirt with it in this series that plays on a voyeuristic aesthetic. This role reversal is definitely new.
While, as Alona Pardo’s notes, “some of the images may be difficult to look at,” the curator has avoided overly touchy subjects, such as religion, and has made sure to bring in a bit of humor and tenderness. “I didn’t want the male visitors to come out feeling bad about themselves or wanting to go hide in a corner. It’s more about exploring, showing, revealing.” And, as the title of the exhibition indicates, the idea is to free men (at least a little) from the myth of a hegemonic, universal, and essentialist masculinity. “We manufacture femininity just as we manufacture masculinity, virility,” said Simone de Beauvoir over forty years ago.
By Laure Etienne
Laure Etienne is a Paris-based journalist and former member of the editorial team at Polka and ARTE.
“Masculinities: Liberation through Photography”, exhibition at the Mécanique Générale, a part of the Rencontres de la photographie d’Arles. Until September 26, 2021. More information here.