In this instalment of #theitch, our writer #pliablegranite talks to the UK art collector Henry Miller about the ‘male form’.
Rather than an overt sexualisation of the male form with sculpted torsos and alluring gazes apparent in our post-modern, internet reliant societies. Henry Miller’s collection (by and large) sees less abrasive, more emotive depictions of the male form, from names who plied their trade in less understanding times.
Perhaps on a more significant level. Henry Miller’s exhibition details how early artists courted controversy and alienation in some respects. In turn their work laid the foundation for more acceptance and openness regarding male homosexuality.
Modern nudes on the other hand, tend to be far more sexualised.
Explain your interest/passion for the male form and what it means to you-can you remember the first piece of work which ignited the passion?
I have always loved figurative pictures and I wanted to create a unique collection. The subject might have different clothes or a different hairstyle but when you look at a picture of the human form you are, in essence, looking at yourself. Being gay, inevitably my focus tends to be towards the male, rather than the female form. There is no other gallery in the UK, which focusses solely on the male form. The first ‘male form’ picture I bought, when I was 17, was Andy Warhol’s film poster for the film Querelle (1982).
What themes, thoughts and ideas are explored using the male form?
The beauty of collating a collection thematically, means that the themes throughout are broad and diverse. It encompasses everything from traditional classicism to more modern and contemporary pieces. What draws the collection together is the perspectives of artists across the generations all expressing their own view and understanding of the human experience.
Can you talk about the ‘gaze’? We hear of the male gaze and all its connotations when referring to the female form-what about when we view the male form?
As a man, it’s a very different thing for me to be curating something which places the male form centre stage rather than women. Not only has this traditionally been something that has been condemned, and even criminalised, but it places man as the object of the gaze, rather than in his traditional position as being the viewer; usually of women. Placing men in this position is something which is relatively new in modern societies and something which is still condemned in more traditional ones.
There is no set period or medium for your pieces exploring the male form but can you talk about photography and some of the names who have had an impact on the male form?
Individuals such as Fred Holland Day and Herbert List spring to mind. Holland Day’s very early photography, although still rooted in the classicism of 19th century art, was instructive in pushing the boundaries of what could be achieved with a camera. Herbert List, whose career spanned much of the 20th century, unashamedly celebrated the male form at a time when such practice was routinely condemned in all European societies.
Nudity and the male form talk about its use in the art that will be shown at your exhibition.
It has been around since the Renaissance and remains a major theme in Western Art. This is hardly surprising. Artists have for hundreds of years sought to present the nude in a variety of different mediums. The primary difference however between the nude of the 1500s and a nude of the 2000s, is the sexualisation of the male form. To a modern viewer the nude of the Renaissance may seem highly sexual, however, this was not the primary goal. Drawing upon antiquity the male nude was associated with triumph, glory, moral excellence and virtue. Modern nudes on the other hand, tend to be far more sexualised. They reflect the more openly sexualised nature of the societies in which they were/are created.
Society with modernity and changing attitudes to sexuality-how has that impacted the depictions of the male form.
Art is not immune from the societies in which it is created. Attitudes to gender and sexuality have changed. The art that has been created in these changing societies developed to reflect more enlightened attitudes. Any piece of art, whatever its subject, will reflect the societies in which it was created. This applies just as much to the techniques and materials used, as the form and composition of the work of art.
In terms of race and the male form explain how things have changed.
Regrettably and shamefully, historically Western Art primarily depicts white people. There is no getting away from it. If people of colour are depicted, many representations will be at best caricatures, at worst overtly racist. Occasionally artists in the past have depicted black people as they would a European sitter. The most of famous of these being Diego Velazquez’s portrait of Juan de Pareja. This portrait in 1650, shows Pareja full of personality and character, presented in the style he would have painted any of his noble or royal portraits. It was truly extraordinary for its time. Clearly as societies have changed, representations of race have changed. See for example Kehinde Wiley, a fantastic contemporary African American artist, whose work couldn’t be further from most historical depictions.
You spoke of the sexualisation of the contemporary male form-the internet of course a major catalyst in that?
Indeed. I wonder with the prevalence of nudity and porn on the internet, whether subtle less explicit representations of men will increase in popularity.
Are there any current artists pushing the boundaries regarding the male form?
Virtually all the work I display comes from artists who are dead, normally long since dead. However, I do represent one ‘contemporary’ artist who is very much still alive. An American in Paris, Ronald Bowen paints and draws with extraordinary skill and creates hyperrealist pictures of amazing virtuosity. His work on the male form is not on display anywhere except on my website. I only have two works, as he is mostly known for his portraits and architectural work. But I love his work, and was truly taken a back when I saw it for the first time.
Is there an image people should search for at your London exhibition?
I have recently bought a lithograph by Erich Heckel from 1917. It depicts two sailors dancing together in dancehall surrounded by disapproving onlookers. The image is wonderful, simple and extremely sensitive. It’s an extraordinary piece when you consider the attitudes at the time it was created.