Two exhibitions this autumn show how that ancient Greek ideal has goaded, and permitted, later artists to dote on the male form. The Male Nude at London's Wallace Collection explores how French artists in the 18th-century studied backs, biceps and buttocks. Masculine/Masculine: The Nude Man in Art from 1800 to the Present Day, at the Musee d'Orsay in Paris, brings the story up to modern times.
Yet one of the most fascinating insights into the nude can actually be seen in a third exhibition, Tate Britain's Art Under Attack. It includes a stained glass window from Canterbury Cathedral that portrays Christ leading people away from a pagan idol. The idol has devilish horns and is naked: as they are led away, some of the men can't help looking back at this masculine nude.
In this medieval Christian image, their gaze is plainly sexual. Male nudes promote "sodomy", in the language of the time. When Italian artists revived the ancient Greek nude in the 15th century they relished that homoeroticism. When the Pollaiuolo brothers painted a spectacular altarpiece of Saint Sebastian, it was said they chose the most beautiful young man in Florence to be their model. In their painting, now in London's National Gallery, he gazes dreamily as arrows pierce his flesh.
The ideal of the male form inherited from ancient Greece was profoundly sexual, and yet it also became part of every artist's training. Michelangelo drew male nudes because he desired men. Later artists, like those in the Wallace Collection show, drew male nudes to emulate Michelangelo.