Reimagining Alma-Tadema

Just a little note on the reception of Classical Antiquity; a thought experiment if you will. Lawrence Alma-Tadema, the once eminent Victorian painter, specialised in Classicising depictions of Roman life, including several set in bathhouses. They largely feature attractive, frequently nude women within these settings (his protégé John William Godward largely went on to dispense of the settings). Obviously these will contain ahistoricities (although his art has been used even recently to inspire the art direction of films such as Gladiator, which is has a similar ahistorical verisimilitude): the underlying research into ancient architecture is generally good, but the twin forces of more than a century of continued scholarship and the requirement for compaction and elision in artistic composition make this inevitable. So, we're going to make allowances for these mistakes, whatever they may be.

Ok so far? Now replace the female subjects with male.

The results are interesting (and I say that from an entirely subjective, unempirical stance). The states of dress and undress, and the subsequent sexual frictions between both subjects and viewers, become all the clearer. The naked female form, supplanted by its masculine counterpart, shifts, becoming more shocking. And from shocking, it is a short step to thought-provoking. And the main thought it provokes to me is this: Classical environs were, and remain, a vehicle, and excuse even, for the 'artistic' representation of sexualised female bodies. Reimagining the images to feature the stark nakedness of men is perceptively more pornographic. It would certainly have been indecent in Alma-Tadema's day, and is still unusual today. This is ironic, as male nudity in art was a commonplace from ancient Greece onwards (on which, see Bonfante, Larissa. 1989), and although representations of nude females ascended in Hellenistic times male nudes remained a dominant artistic form. Nude women characterise the representation of the Classical past because it is, on one hand, the most palatable part in this respect of the (supposedly) debauched pagan past and, on the other, because it is the titillating part of the past that we want to receive.  

Lawrence Alma-Tadema painted attractive, naked Roman women because to display naked men within the public space of art would have been unthinkably close to homosexuality and because the Roman context gave an accepted chance ("it's just history!") to paint sexy females. It's an attitude that still largely informs our popular reception of Classical times today.

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Bonfante, Larissa. 1989. Nudity as a Costume in Classical Art. American Journal of Archaeology 93, no. 4 (October): 543-570. doi:10.2307/505328
Image: Lawrence Alma-Tadema. 1881. In the Tepidarium. Oil on canvas. 24.2 × 33 cm. Lady Lever Art Gallery, UK. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tepidarium_Lawrence_Alma-Tadema_%281836-1912%29.jpg.

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