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So what did ‘Raphael like about David’s backside’? (p. 150). Reviewing, from the bottom-up: Rubin, P.L. (2018) Seen From Behind: Perspectives on the Male Body and Renaissance Art New Haven & London, Yale University Press.

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Monday, 26 Nov 2018, 19:34

So what did ‘Raphael like about David’s backside’? (p. 150). Reviewing, from the bottom-up: Rubin, P.L. (2018) Seen From Behind: Perspectives on the Male Body and Renaissance Art New Haven & London, Yale University Press.

Rubin’s book isn’t a lot of things: it isn’t a development of queer theory although it references that theory well in Chapter 2 (on the ‘queer [teapot] pose in Eakins and his artistic forebears [50]) and Chapter 6, in particular, and in a more nuanced way. It also isn’t in any way an attempt to present a consistent thesis, other than insisting in the instances represented by 6 very different chapters the fact that there are competing visual-rhetorical modes, and sometimes literary analogues of these (I kept thinking of Chaucer who isn’t mentioned though Dante, of course, is), of the male posterior. Sometimes this involves female ones too, although Lucian makes it clear for one Athenian, at least, this is because her backside reminds him of Ganymede (44).

In the first chapter it is clear that at least three emotional domains in particular cover the posterior and these variously recur: disgust, humour and desire. Of course these interact sometimes but mostly we stay in many chapters with the latter, ‘the spectre of the ideal male nude’ in Chapter 6 being the best. Herein lies a source of thinking about how desire of the male for the male tied itself in with both historical ideologies of the masculine, homo-sociality and academic conventions, tropes and topoi – notably that of homosocial bathing. And here, at last we find a better example than Durer’s woodcut of an open-air male-bath: Domenico Cresti (or Passignano’s) Bathers at San Nicolo (1600) and the case for linking that and Michelangelo’s studies, the partial origin of all academic studies of the male nude (we are told), to a tradition that explains further what traditions Cezanne was both building on and breaking from in his male nude Bathers (1890). There are many examples of such long duration comparisons – they illuminate for instance the V-legged dorsal view of Caillebotte’s 1844 Man at His Bath. There are traditions of such a stance and migrations from its original meanings – in this case from masculine aggression in war from Pollaiulo Nude Man Seen from Three Angles (early 1470s) through David’s imperious Intervention of the Sabines (1799) to Bazille’s relaxed but manly Fisherman with a Net (1868) [113ff].

The fact that there isn’t a simple synthetic argument but rather six nuanced essays with common themes is a strength here. Thus the discussion of how multiple perspectives of the body seen all around from infinite viewpoints is beautifully tied to conventional themes of Renaissance art. This includes the paragone (the competition for priority) of art and sculpture and then gently inserted into the practices this set up – finishing nude bottoms perfectly even when designed (p.180ff.) for a collector’s inset wall-niche (where that bottom could not possibly be seen). Only in the chapter following this is this convention art-historical discovery segued into issues that queer the clarity of our statements about our ‘love’ of art. Comparing the ‘justification’ of an almost obsessive concern with the buttock in Cezanne with Michelangelo, she says (in a way that allows multiple unsaid motivations of artist or viewer to remain gelid in the air of both artists’ respective centuries):

Grandiose as they are, they lack the heroic motivation that had traditionally justified staring at men’s backsides. They threaten to make the viewer a voyeur (210).

Although the issue of humour isn’t explored in many later chapters, it fills Chapter 1 (the section called ‘Dirty Talk’ (p.26ff.)) and infects the prose so that every sentence sometimes seems to have a double-entendre or pun about the desirability of the ass, a bit like the one in my title or an exploration of why the butt of most jokes (visual and otherwise) is the butt – whether in a fourteenth-century Flemish parchment anti-clerical illustration or a Newton cartoon of 1797 (28f.).

There is much here that is just straightforward art-historical scholarship of the highest order (even with some of the tedium of exempla that sometimes involves) but there is also much that opens up new hypotheses about why male nudity cannot be conceived without the necessary dorsal views. And the book insists that this isn’t just because of artistic emulatio from Leonardo’s [130] Study of a Man Seen Behind (1503-7) to Rossellini’s [140f] use of the Farnese Hercules in Voyage to Italy (1954).  The treatment of dwarf nudes is splendid (156ff)  and telling and has a lot to do with the nude as something we handle – in reality or imagination (158). There is a lot to be gained from little dips into this book. For instance the narrative that links Pollaiuolo’s Battle of Nudes (1470s) to Signorelli’s use of ‘shapely buttocks’ as his ‘signature (42), especially in the incredible Figures in a Landscape: Two Nude Youths (1488-9).

There is more to say. This is a very good book indeed. Together with Anthea Callen, this has been a great year for re-thinking the male nude.

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