The masculine ideal, this collective hallucination

The masculine ideal, this collective hallucination
The masculine ideal, this collective hallucination

Take away the ball, the cleats, the vociferous tattoos and the killer tackles. Stripped of the artefacts of virility, the gestures of a footballer border on danced grace. Sometimes it is enough to isolate an image from its context to see it with new eyes.

This is the experience offered indirectly by the National Museum of Zurich through a thematic exhibition that questions the evolution of the masculine ideal in the history of Western art. Through a selection of works ranging from Antiquity to the present day, drawing simultaneously from surrealism, pop art, photography, literature, cinema and the art of armor, The exhausted man undress the figure of the almighty hero. Finally, by showing us the flaws, counter-examples and ambiguities of representations of virility, she invites us to celebrate the porosity of genres.

From football to hubris

Thus Zinédine Zidane, filmed by the 17 cameras of Philippe Parreno and Douglas Gordon, no longer appears only as a high-level athlete but as the object of an aesthetic fascination. On the giant screen showing excerpts from the film (Zidane: a portrait of the 21st century) at the entrance of the exhibition, his aura of a tragic character, consecrated in our minds by the spectacular finale of his career – the head butt to Materazzi to defend his wounded honor – is obvious. But the exercise of admiration is very quickly qualified by the sculpture of Laocoon placed at the feet of the footballer.

The priest of Apollo, long considered the archetype of the ancient male, struggles here, all muscles protruding, against the horde of serpents which will eventually prevail to punish him for having mated on the divine altar (or, according to the versions, for warning the Trojans that the horse was a trap).

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Stefan Zweifel, co-curator of the exhibition, sees this scene as a symbolic turning point: “This is the first appearance of an exhausted man in cultural history, in the fifth century BC.” Until now among the Greeks, heroes and gods were always represented in the expression of their power.

But hubris – that excess of pride to which men succumb, encouraged by the intoxication of power – always catches up with mortals. The news is full of examples, from Harvey Weinstein to Jair Bolsonaro ignoring the covid. This is why the figure of Achilles, the intrepid warrior who died to have believed himself invincible, haunts several works in the remainder of the exhibition, proving us to what extent this fate encapsulated in an anatomical detail remains a reading grid. timeless.

Dialogue between eras

The idea of ​​”the exhausted man” never seems as relevant as through this principle of juxtaposition. By creating a dialogue between eras and gazes, constantly confronting the masculine ideal with its own pitfalls, the exhibition forces us to rethink our daily mythologies: a contemporary version of the arena or the battlefield, the sports field is the Ultimate showcase of the show of manhood, the video tells us again, which shows the fatal crash of pilot Ayrton Senna, compared by race commentators to a thunderstruck archangel.

The same principle hits the mark when he suggests that the German photographer Juergen Teller, by smearing his self-portrait with indications of Photoshop retouching (“thinner legs!”, “Correct the stomach!”), Is not far from the intention of Ferdinand Hodler, exalting inordinately the courage of the soldiers in The Battle of Murten.

A little further on, it’s Louise Bourgeois photographed by Robert Mapplethorpe with her sculpture Little girl – a gigantic phallus – which gives the fuck to the surrealists, to their “celibate machines” and to the exploration of the cogs of their desires.

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To think up this exhibition and refine their point, the curators Stefan Zweifel and Juri Steiner had to do a work of self-archeology: “We sought to identify what were the ideals that define our life as men from the white middle class. . Greek myths intervene very early in the education of children. What is their influence on our imagination? Why are our cultures dominated by the fantasy of a certain male type? ”

A smokescreen

This conceptual and aesthetic research allowed them to break free from stereotypes to celebrate their nuances. In the last part of the exhibition, the less didactic, the masculine gender is brightened up and disguised thanks to the photographs of the very powerful Claude Cahun (1894-1954), precursor of dandyfied subversion. There she rubs shoulders with the Austrian painter Maria Lassnig, theoretician of body consciousness in painting, here present for her feminized version of Laocoon, arms broken by effort.

Since it is a question of sowing confusion in the genre, Andy Warhol, Brassaï or Richard Avedon are obviously part of the party. John Lennon, posing naked and snuggled up against Yoko Ono, or Mick Jagger, his face wearing a fur coat, soon join the dance of identities, as do the marginal characters (drags, hermaphrodites, short people) photographed by Diane Arbus, who in their time contributed to making the excluded from society visible.

But “the exhausted man” is also exhausted by having no limits. Decorating the male model encourages the opposite excess: the 1970s were those of the first empires of pornography and the sexual objectification of women. Several works refer to it without dwelling on it, leaving the right of reply to a few feminist installations that denounce these abuses, like Sarah Lucas diverting the rabbits from Playboy.

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But it is the image of Jane Fonda thoughtfully sucking a “man’s essence” hookah in an excerpt from Barbarella which best reveals what nourishes the background of this exhibition: the masculine ideal is a smoke screen, but it is so thick that it deceives and corrupts a large number of victims, leading in its wake a procession of injunctions, suffering and violence.

Tabitha King (the wife of Stephen King, unfortunately) once declared that “behind every feminist man, there is an exhausted woman”. Leaving the National Museum in Zurich on the sculpture of a sleeping, peaceful, universal hermaphrodite, one thinks a little further: is there not, behind each individual, an exhausted perception of the governing genre?

The Exhausted Man, National Museum Zurich, until January 10, 2021

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