In taking these pictures I joined the thinly populated group of women who have looked unflinchingly at men, and who frequently have been punished for doing so. Remember poor Psyche, chastised by the gods for daring to lift the lantern that illuminated her sleeping lover. I can think of numberless male artists, from Bonnard to Weston to Stieglitz, who have photographed their lovers and spouses, but I have trouble finding parallel examples among my sister photographers. The act of looking appraisingly at a man, studying his body and asking to photograph him, is a brazen venture for a woman; for a male photographer, these acts are commonplace, even expected. — Sally Mann
Some time ago, someone challenged me to paint nudes. I'm not interested in painting bodies or faces or even objects, but thought, let's see if I can do it. So I taught myself how to draw bodies from images of famous reclining nudes and odalisques found on the internet — Matisse, Courbet, Bonnard, Velasquez, and so on. I copied the bodies, more or less, on the computer, and paintings of my own rose up around them, eventuating in what amounted to riffs on famous paintings of female nudes. They were amusing, a genre of their own, perhaps, but after a while, I got bored and stopped. Then I suddenly realized that when I was challenged to paint nudes I had immediately thought of female subjects and went about painting them. What kind of feminist are you? I asked myself. Why don't you paint men as well? I went back to the internet looking for men's bodies as models, and discovered that there is no continuous history of single male nude painting, of the reclining, relaxed or playful male nude, in Western art. There are no male odalisques.
Of course there are exceptions. There is some well-known sculpture, from the 5th and 15th and other centuries, but it is warlike and aggressive rather than personal, very attuned to muscles and tendons, not a male version of the relaxed, intimate females I had been painting. And the second half of the twentieth century brought us homoerotic photographs. But that's not the counterpart to a reclining (female) nude (by a male painter). There are some self-portraits — by Klimt and Schiele, for example — a few effete nudes by Eakins, some other exceptions, including those by John Singer Sargent, but really no tradition or continuum. More importantly, such paintings or photographs are all by men, of men. There is some relatively recent work by women, but it has not resulted in an ongoing body of work by female artists, certainly not in any tradition of women viewing and painting men. How does a woman look at a naked man? What is a woman's view? In what ways are male bodies interesting, beautiful, meaningful to women?
The reasons for this surprising situation would be better described by a sociologist or historian; but it's clear that, for a long time, women were not allowed to paint; then they weren't allowed to paint male genitalia; and, even today, a woman alone with a nude male model is in a much more fraught and vulnerable position than she would be if she were male.
I started talking about my discovery to anyone who would listen because I found it so interesting and was wondering what I could do about it. To my amazement, men, known and relatively unknown to me began to offer to pose. With some trepidation, I began to take them up on their offers. I made quick Blackberry photos of various poses, then transferred them to my computer painting program, intending to learn how to portray the male body from the photographs. Paintings did not arise naturally from these drawings. I soon realized that it was because there were no nude male paintings in my head as there were female ones. But men continued to offer, and I became more comfortable with the subject matter and the process. The photo/paintings now begin with the Blackberry photos imported into the painting program, but reach out from there to become paintings. Sometimes painting is emphasized, sometimes nature, depending on the original photograph. There are abstract paintings and quite representational ones, but all have as their root the original Blackberry photo of that particular nude model's body.
I have found that men are avid to be seen by a woman, really looked at, and are not interested in the results. I've had a glimpse of the fantasies they enjoy, long denied, while being exposed in the nude. Of course, most men have never been looked at in this focused way, naked, vulnerable before a clothed woman, a woman with camera, as have women modeling for men. The balance of power is reversed: the man feels he is naked and vulnerable, dictated to by the woman. Or he may enjoy exhibiting himself. Or... so many things
This is only a little of what I have learned about men. I've also learned a lot about digital painting and low-tech digital photography and the combination of the two, which seems to produce a different style for every man. Unlike photographie peinte, I don't print the photograph and then paint on it, but enter it into my painting program, where I paint on it, and then print the whole photo/painting. My entire process is digital.
All the bodies in these works are headless. I do this in order to protect the privacy of the subject; but also because, once there's a face on a body, everything changes. The focus then inevitably trains on the face and the story it tells, not on the body. I'm interested only in the body, in the body for its own sake. In this format no one seems to miss the face, even though it seems that I have unwittingly disempowered the man by removing his ability to gaze back.
I'm an artist foremost; but for the first time I have a sense of extra-artistic mission about an art project. I want to explore whether there is anything beautiful, or meaningful, or of interest about the male body. Not something pornographic or overtly erotic, but just to see what there is to see, without agenda.
Anne Marie Levine, New York 2015