The history of art is replete with images of beautiful women, but regularly scorns men who, should they be blessed as such, are traditionally downplayed as ‘handsome’ or ‘good looking’, as if their very beauty compromises them.
Many of the traditions surrounding men of exceptional beauty end in tragedy, as if the nature of male beauty itself portends a tale of caution. Adonis was gored by the horns of a bull and died in the arms of his lover, Aphrodite; Narcissus starved to death, unable to leave his reflection in a puddle; Ganymede, ‘the most beautiful of mortals’, was raped by Zeus in the form of an eagle. Endymion was so beautiful that, entreated by his wife Selene, his father Zeus put him into an eternal sleep, such that he never grow old and lose his looks (or enjoy them for himself).
Even Moses, allegedly a child of remarkable beauty, was born just as it was decreed that all male infants be drowned in the Nile.
The implacable legends of literature and myth may have warned against the pitfalls of being beautiful, but the artists of the Renaissance and Baroque periods did much to reverse this convention. The Biblical legend of David portrays a fearless young man who, fortified by pure faith, boldly defeated the colossal Goliath. Michelangelo is believed by many to have captured David in the moment immediately before his decisive action, when he is at his most perfect and decisive, for the single greatest expression in art of the potential of mortal man. Indeed, Michelangelo used male models even for the preparatory studies of female figures, not just out of expediency, but to substantiate the general Renaissance belief in the superiority of the male body over the female. He is known to have had several male muses, perhaps most famously Tommaso de Cavalieri, a relationship recently explored in the Courthauld Gallery exhibition of the Master’s drawings, but it is arguable who was the model for David.
Striking a similarly contrapposto pose for his 2008 Dolce & Gabbana calendar, David Gandy, on paper an inanimate sculpture, is David’s modern equivalent. His athletic yet compliant physique is redolent of David and confirmation of their shared ideal as the enduring image of male beauty, one that survived the turn-of-millenium revolution instigated by the alien-like waifs of Dior Homme, quickly returning the notion of male beauty to the realm of the Herculean warrior, even if he does have to share it with a young faun. When Germaine Greer published her book The Beautiful Boy, a history-spanning gallery of the most beautiful adolescent boys in the history of art and culture, it was to mild controversy, as ‘society is not accustomed to seeing beauty in young males.’ Perhaps society had become unaccustomed to seeing beauty in males.
Mario Minniti was sixteen years old when he posed for Boy With a Basket of Fruit. Some have speculated that he and Caravaggio were lovers; this could explain the delicacy with which the young man who would go on to be Master presented his subject. However, there is a tension in the boy’s neck and shoulders that is at odds with the softness in his face; the basket of fruit must have weighed a ton and been held in pose for hours. The artist typically eschewed the aid of preparatory drawings for the spontaneity of working straight onto the canvas.
The final masterpiece is imbued with a slightly fraught edge. It is improbable that the sitter could have remained still for so long in such a pose, his labial lips slightly parted and moist, the tip of the tongue visible just inside. The artist could conceivably have been painting as much from the romanticised image he had formed of Minniti in his head as from the possibly restless, tiring form he saw before him.
Caravaggio himself knew implicitly what it was to appeal to a man, and in turn, how this trait was manifest in others. In Derek Jarman’s biopic, the protagonist exclaims, ‘I’m an art object, and very, very expensive.’ He himself may once have been the young man in the portrait; indeed, at 22, he was hardly a daddy when Boy With a Basket of Fruit was painted. Caravaggio was a rebel who consistently eroticised the male figure, presenting knowing, full-frontal nudes who appear as if natural in this state, often to live in secret behind curtains in the homes of quietly homosexual patrons. They have luscious, slightly-parted lips and voluminous curls, beseeching eyes and familiar poses, and reach out from the frame of the canvas like an Amsterdam prostitute from her window. The model’s reaction to this objectification is solicitous, defensive, self-promoting, pragmatic, self-serving and narcissistic. The boy seeks to repel what he attracts, exuding an air of untouchability. All of a sudden, beauty is power and money, rather than a hindrance.
Behold the joy of his skin as it rushes to embrace its great love, the light. Glorify the poise of his sinews; gently kiss his velvet lips and the silky angles of his cheek; revel in the honesty in his eyes and in the indifference of his gaze.
‘We are glorified male prostitutes,’ says Canadian model Simon Nessman of himself and his comrades. Furthermore, in an interview with industry blog Where The Lights End, he says: ‘The trick is not me representing these iconic brands. I just take a few pictures, and the next six months it’s these images that represent the brand.’
Praised for his beauty and versatility, Nessman manages to sell his body at a price approaching its financial worth, whilst detachedly retaining his self. As he debuted, the world’s greatest fashion photographers queued to regale his presence. Bruce Weber captured him as a pre-Raphaelite muse, a male Proserpina; for Paolo Roversi he was as simple, divine and romantic as one of Wilhelm von Gloeden’s young followers.
The Western equivalent of what the Japanese call bishōnen, males with distinctly feminine features such as, in his case, sharp cheekbones, feline eyes, pure skin and voluptuous lips, he is a supermodel emergent at a time in which menswear approaches a historical peak. The modern male consumer has an eye for style and beauty, and money to spend. In the past decade, houses previously exclusive to womenswear, such as Balenciaga, Balmain and Lanvin, have launched successful men’s lines, and the trend is set to continue with Roland Mouret and Alexander Wang.
Even that most quintessentially feminine of houses, Chanel, is toying coyly with menswear. Part of the reason for this intensifying flirtation may involve Karl Lagerfeld’s promotion of French model Baptiste Giabiconi, who was discovered by a photographer in his local gym. Lagerfeld quickly moved to install Giabiconi as his male muse. He is like ‘the boy version of Gisele,’ he has said, ‘skinny… but with an athletic body – good for clothes and great with no clothes.’ Upon meeting Giabiconi in 2008, Naomi Campbell told him: ‘It’s not fair. We all have flaws. You have none.’
Chanel quietly launched a line for men in 2009 with a tiny capsule of low-key pieces, available only at a single Paris location. Since meeting Giabiconi, Lagerfeld appears to have increased his interest in, and broadened his vision of, what it is to be a Chanel man, crystallising this evolution through the matching of Giabiconi with twin sister/bride figure Freja Beha Erichsen, effectively forming the Chanel male from a male/female whole, the embodiment of masculinity from the side of the beautiful borderline. This patient, studious approach is typical of Lagerfeld, shrewdly forestalling any murmur of disapproval from Coco’s grave.
If there is an abiding trend in fashion right now, it is beauty itself. All kinds of men can be said to be beautiful, from the Adonis to the lute player. Though most muses in art and fashion have tended to be female, the concept of the male muse is not new; John Singer Sargent was inspired by Thomas E. McKellar, a six-foot-two black man he met in a lift; Lucien Freud was entranced by Leigh Bowery. Both artists painted their subject in the nude and in vulnerable poses, penetrating the depths of their personalities and documenting every fold, every vein.
Men are paying more attention to their appearances now than they ever have. We all need idols to look up to. Long live the male muse.