Men take up more space than women. Literal. On the train, I prefer to pick the empty seat next to a woman. She is more likely to move to make me sit comfortably than with a man. I can not prove it, but I feel that they are more often than not. That men take up more space is also a possible conclusion from the German artist Marianne Wex’s pseudo-scientific research. Under the title Let’s take our place back: ‘Female’ and ‘male’ body language as a result of patriarchal structures (1979) Wex collected images of men and women from advertising, fashion and art history and then categorized them by body position (standing or sitting), foot position, arm position. The resulting visual overviews in Let’s take our place back deliver remarkable moments of recognition. Women who sit have their legs crossed or squeeze their knees together. Men, on the other hand, sit with spread legs and give the viewer a clear view of their crotch. Women standing put one foot in front of or next to the other, in free variations of the ‘graceful’ contraposto position of Venus from Botticelli. Men stand papally apart, feet facing outward.
This visual examination is not scientific evidence of gender inequality depicted in body postures. However, due to the repetition and amount of images, Let’s take our place back to say the least confrontational. And funny. The two visual overviews from Marianne Wex’s work are part of the group exhibition Masculinities: Liberation through photography at the Antwerp Museum of Photography, FOMU. In the introduction to the catalog of the same name, the famous quote from Simone de Beauvoirs The second sex (1949) quoted again: ‘You were not born a woman, you are made a woman’.
The same goes for men. Culture, upbringing, ethnicity, age, sexual preference, all these factors have a formative effect and contribute to the pattern of expectation and the image we have of women and men. An image that lives in all strata of society and that is sometimes overt but just as often hidden. It determines the stereotypical gender representations we see every day in the media, in movies and in the arts. This dominant image of what masculinity – or femininity – is, shapes and confirms existing gender roles.
I studied in Amsterdam in the eighties, and like all my female classmates, I read the texts of feminist film critic Laura Mulvey. She described in 1975 ‘the male gaze’, the male gaze. According to Mulvey, women in representations more often have a passive role and are subject to the sexual desire of the heterosexual man. It is a reflection of the unequal power relationship between the two. Men see women being monitored.
But not in the exhibition Masculinities: Liberation through photography† Here we look at men. In photography and film from the 1960s to the present day, we see how masculinity is experienced, how men are represented, and how this shapes men (and women). The exhibition also shows that there is no single definition of masculinity, just as little as there is a clear picture of it. Hence the majority in the title.
Our idea of gender can change. The image of the dominant heterosexual man and the subordinate role of women in the 1970s, which has been the subject of Wex and Mulvey’s investigations, although unfortunately they are still recognizable to this day, has since changed. A lot of work in Masculinities: Liberation through photography undermine our assumptions about men and show a different, unexpected or lesser known side. We see men in different roles: in politics, in the media, in relationships, sports, war and work. In these different roles, there is often a question of power, the exercise of power or inequality of power. That inequality is not just gender-related; class, ethnicity or sexual orientation also play a role. Part of the exhibition shows the archetypes of masculinity in relation to power: here we see cowboys, soldiers and policemen. The sometimes exaggerated attention to the symbolic symbols of masculinity makes these archetypes occasionally laugh. Although not everyone will see it that way, and some people will find them attractive. Think of clichés like improbably muscular bodies, unexpected leather garments like ties, body hair and mirrored sunglasses. Anyone who thinks of the eighties disco band The Village People is like me from my generation.
Almost opposite to the conventional depiction of masculinity as powerful, tough and independent is the work of the Dutch concept artist Bas Jan Ader. This portrait from 1971, filmed in black and white, is almost uncomfortably intimate, with Ader crying, without us finding out why the artist was so tormented. He cries open-mouthed, his eyes mostly closed and turned away from the viewer. He cries softly, sometimes heartbreakingly, and then hides his face behind his hand. For over three minutes, we see his crying face in close-up, without sound, from a fixed camera angle. Prior to this film came a series of photos (1970), including a postcard with the text written by Ader “I’m too sorry to tell you that” which he sent to friends. Some see this as an indication of the artist’s depression, which disappeared forever in the Atlantic in 1975 with his sailboat. The Hague Post reviewer I’m too sad to tell you at the time, and finished the job with ‘a little laugh’. The artist was branded as sentimental and a romantic softie.
If possible, watching a masturbating man is even more intimate than watching a crying man. The three black and white portraits Orgasmic man (1969) by Peter Hujar is, like the filmed portrait of Bas Jan Ader, sober and focuses on the intense expression of the person portrayed. Hujar was a prominent figure in New York’s cultural and queer scene in the 1970s and 1980s. He portrayed male sexuality rudely. In it, he was a child of his time, a period of unprecedented sexual freedom crushed by the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s.
IN Masculinities: Liberation through photography is much attention to the queer and lgbtq + society and its relationship to masculinity. The black male body emphatically occupies a place in it. Even outside of queer society, the black body is often linked to sexuality. African-American photographer Deana Lawson uses this often-produced association in her work. In her images, the black body is at the center of everyday life, often in a homely environment. They often refer to the African diaspora, to pride and dignity, and to sexual objectification. In this exhibition, the choice is made Sons of Cush from 2016. A muscular black man holds a baby in his arms against his naked tattooed torso. He sits straddling a chair in a living room full of picture frames and other home accessories, with his gaze fixed and confident on the camera lens. In the left corner of the picture we see just one arm of a man out of sight. He holds a large stack of dollar bills in his hand. Tattooed letters form the word DOPE on the knuckles. Everything in this picture is carefully staged. Lawson plays with stereotypical ideas about black culture and the representation of black men as gangsters and criminals and as fertile, sexually desirable objects. Even – or perhaps especially – if they are a father.
A separate chapter is devoted to family and the diversity of fatherhood in the catalog above Masculinities† Although the role of the family and within that role of the father in our Western society is changing rapidly, the conventional idea of the father as the breadwinner is still prevalent. The Dutch concept artist Hans Eijkelboom (1949) looked at the Dutch family with humor. In his series With my family (1973) you think you see a typical family portrait from the 1970s in the black and white pictures. Such a snapshot that can be found in any family album from that time: father, mother and children photographed in the living room. Until you notice that the father is identical in all families. Eijkelboom called unannounced homes to families he suspected the man was working outside the home. He persuaded the women to let him take the absent father’s place and took a photo. The resulting family portraits look remarkably authentic, the families pose seemingly casually, the children smile on mom and dad’s lap. But the pictures are more than a joke, they also question the traditional. Father as the breadwinner who earns the money, mother who stays at home and takes care of the children.
That fatherhood is certainly not always associated with gentleness and intimacy, we see in the series My mother’s cupboards and my father’s words, 1999, by British photographer Ana Fox. We see exactly what the title says: Diptykoner of the neatly arranged interior of a kitchen cupboard – pink glass, a floral porcelain tableware – next to dad’s texts for mom in gracefully curly font: ‘Beasty Bitches, Filthy Cows’. Then one more: ‘She must be fried in hot oil’. Fatherhood associated with destruction, the man as the aggressor who evokes fearful emotions even off-screen.
Fatherhood in all its guises: from the object of sexual desire to the trust-building family father to the malicious aggressor. It illustrates the complexity and fluidity of the concept of masculinity. Showing this diversity was the starting point for curator Alona Pardo from the Barbican Center in London, where this exhibition was shown for the first time in 2020. It was unforeseen that the topic would become so topical in this time of revelations about sexually transgressive behavior in politics, sports and media. It makes the exhibition and the accompanying book all the more interesting.
Masculinities: Liberation through photography† The exhibition can be seen until March 13 in FOMU, Fotomuseum Antwerpen. The book of the same name is published by Prestel Verlag in collaboration with the Barbican Center. Curator and editor: Alona Pardo.