Some of the inspiration for the Heroics series came when I was travelling through Europe many years ago, and was astounded by the eroticism and the amount of unembarrassed male nudity in public art and sculpture.
The very first time I sauntered along London’s Millbank on my way to the Tate Britain Museum, I was confronted by two writhing naked men tying a poor woman to a bull, ( pictured, bottom, from HEROICS II) and then found myself staring up through the leaping legs of another naked man carrying a woman’s head! I am of course describing the statues that decorate the entrance, The Death Of Dirce and The Rescue Of Andromeda, which is of Perseus carrying Medusa’s head.( pictured, above, from HEROICS.)
Experiencing these for the first time was awesome ( in the literal sense of the word), because not only were they haunting and erotically charged sculptures , but, as I quickly realised, they were two of hundreds of erotically charged publicly naked and semi-naked men throughout great European cities like London, taken for granted by thousands of blasé commuters each day.
The Death Of Dirce is itself based upon the exquisite classical sculpture, now called The Farnese Bull, (pictured, right) itself dating from around 220 AD, on display in Rome. A 16th century pope had acquired it when his men found it while digging around Roman ruins in search of fabulous garden decorations , and Michelangelo evidently turned it into a fountain for the Pope’s garden.
The Baroque period, and the incorporation of naked, lustful, heroic classicism into religious art (thanks partly to Medici influence and money), is something that always perplexed me as a child growing up in an austere Catholicism surrounded by this orgy of imagery.
The nudity in realistic painting and sculpture (the photography in its day) was scandalous when first unveiled as the new religious art. But it became highly sought after for church decoration. And it was copied and plagiarised around the world to Tasmania, where I was confused and aroused by it as a child, while the nuns and priests taught me to be ashamed of my sinful body.
And to this day, the outrage or embarrassment at real or photo-real representations of full male nudity that is still felt and expressed, is at odds with the public art which we inherited from the classical tradition, and which was resurrected by Christian Europe in the Renaissance, art invented when civilisations worshipped the full beauty of a male as much, if not more than that of a female.We are socialised to feel embarrassment or repulsion at male genitalia, and the portrayal of the naked male as an object of sensuality in art film and photography is judged pejoratively as gay or homoerotic.
Heroics is partly about re-interpreting the classical posturing contained in our public art using photo reality in order to comment on this gap between heroic art and life. Placing men scantily attired in period costumes into modern surroundings, or placing contemporary men in classical environments, sometimes borrowing backgrounds painted by an old master, was one way I sought to do this.
Some of this may be lost in a theatricality that evokes more of the surreal tragi-comedy of a Fellini set than that awe I got from staring up at the very serious sensuality of the statues outside the Tate Britain. And that brings me to another aim of the series, which was to satirise the way European men have adorned and mythologised themselves and their physical courage, in art through the centuries. More on that another time.