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a QAR exclusive by Solon

The bracketed numbers in the text refer to the images in the gallery.

Inspired, spoofed, misunderstood, plagiarized, and copied - the long heritage of the classical tradition of art and sculpture, myth and architecture, has for over 100 years served as a “Classical Alibi,” used to justify and inspire photographic images of male nudity, homoeroticism, or, even, as the 19th century might have it, purity and beauty.

As encountered in Gay Pride parades (1), Mardi Gras festivals (2), and at Halloween, gay men gravitate time and time again to shirtless gladiator costumes, beefy recreations of the Greeks of '300,' and evocations of classical master and slave relations.

Whether this is from a yearning for historic validation from the role of homosexuality in Greek aristocratic society or a recognized source of artistic and heroic male nudity, this visual evocation of the classical past has been part of the gay visual tradition in photography and imagery for over 100 years. It stems from the heroic nudity in the physical representations in ancient statuary, in the adaptations of the Renaissance, the Baroque, and the Academic tradition, but also from the discovery of the camera and its facile ability to mimic these historic images with a model having a good body and costume. Little more than a helmet, a shield and bare legs ending in laced sandals are required, and the less of any tunic or leather skirt, the better; even the pose may derive from the sculptural memories of ancient Greece and Roman copies.

This survey of the physique images in this classical tradition of photography presents landmark images of the use and abuse of the evolution of the classical tradition in male photographic representation over more than 100 years. Recall, of course, the pervasive epigraphical echo here of this classical tradition in the English language since the very words “classical,” “alibi,” “photography,” “homosexuality,” “eroticism” - and perhaps even “queer” – all derive from the Greek and Latin.

Kenneth Dutton suggests in his Perfectible Body, the bodies of Greek gods and heroes became the iconic goal of the modern body builder, beginning from Eugen Sandow’s pseudo historic poses before 1900 (3), on to today. Society has adopted classical concepts of the epitome of the heroic and athletic body as conceived in fifth century Athens, rather than the body shapes of other venerated iconic traditions such as the corpulent Buddha or Grunewald’s emaciated Christ on the Cross. The early ideal of the slender body of the prepubescent Greek ephebe (4), beloved on Greek vases and sculptures from the sixth century B.C., gave way to the more mature muscular perfections of the sculptures representing arête, the hero and the good in the Greek visions of the sculptors Polyclitus, Praxiteles and Lysippos (5). The resulting legacy of buff bodies in cold marble has forever afterwards informed and shaped the modern vision of the perfect physical form, including early bar bell publications such as Milo (6).

This historical beginning in Western art became the "Classical Alibi" as the trope of the exotic and classic Arcadianism adopted by the late 19th century pictorialists in Europe and America to extend the Academic tradition of the male nude from its recurrence in centuries of painting and sculpture from the Renaissance on, into the medium of photography as an excuse for male nudity and, not incidentally, for illustrating subtexts of male homoeroticism.

As Thomas Waugh writes in his insightful Hard to Imagine, these artistic images, with wreaths, costumes and classical nudes, embodied the ideals of John Addington Symonds and other Victorian apologists for the Uranians' philosophy.

From these nineteenth century beginnings, Waugh’s so-called “Classical Alibi” flourished before and between the World Wars and more so afterwards, as suppression under the American postal laws required an artistic excuse for the suddenly shocking instance of the male nude. Examples of the work of numerous physique photographers are shown here to demonstrate the widespread and international use of this theme for male nudity in the 1940-1980s. For these photographers of male nudes, the “Classical Alibi” was partly excuse, partly inspiration, and partly a psychological harkening back to a moment in the ancient past that embraced or tolerated homosexuality in society.

Even in the last 50 years, the Classical Alibi continues to be used for film, dance, advertising, photography, and pornography as an elegant packaging of pseudo historical purity and sexual subtexts. This lingering classical influence in contemporary imagery is limited in its modern scope to the mostly white, Eurocentric context in which it once was legally necessary and in which it flourished. It is not often seen in contemporary explorations of gay identity in art and photography now dominated by forthright nudity of undecorated males for art or for pornography, or to describe the gay experience of men or women of color, of lesbian or transgendered populations, of fetish devotees (except for the occasional S&M costume party or parade), or in introspective and self-reflective gay portraiture. Its inclusion in a modern image has therefore become but one source in a wide-ranging palette of many possible inspirations, drawn upon more for decorative reference, fashion, irony, humor, or parody, than for any historically substantive or philosophical meaning.

A look at where this influence began in photography and how it evolved over more than 100 years is instructive to understand its fascination, manipulation and application over that time.

A survey of images of the “Classical Alibi” in male photographic representation:

The claimed purity of the classical references by 19th century sculptors and painters is exemplified by the sculpture of the exploited feminism of the Greek Slave, 1851, of Hiram Powers (7), or the subtly sexual classical invocations of Bertel Thorwaldsen (8) and Antonio Canova (9), and followed in America by a focus on nudity in photography by Thomas Eakins (10, 11) and Eadweard Muybridge (12). The scourge of federal censorship laws in 1873, urged on by Anthony Comstock, marked the rise of punitive American censorship. Artistic and religious excuses were used thereafter by photographers providing nude illustrations for artists such as Igout, or aesthetic explorations by F. Holland Day (13) and his friend Clarence White (14). Simulacra of ancient classical sculptures were seen around the turn of the century in Sandow’s poses, and in the tableaux vivants posed by the The Living Marbles (15), and by the Seldoms at the London Pavilion (16).

In the 20th century remarkable photographers such as George Seeley (17); F. Holland Day (18) and Clarence White found inspiration in extending the Arcadian sensibility of the classical nude. The turn of the century body builder Eugen Sandow (19) became renowned as a modern Hercules and began the 20th century’s craze for physical fitness. Italian photographers in Sicily including Giovanni Crupi, Wilhelm von Gloeden (20), Guglielmo Pluschow (21), Gaetano D’Agata, and Vincenzo Galdi posed countless youths, generally nude, in classical settings throughout Southern Italy, which became famous but which were prosecuted in later years. In the 1920s-1930s this fascination with the Roman tradition was followed by photographers such as the American dancer and painter Hubert Stowitts (22), and in France by A. Noyer Studio in Paris (23, 24), and others in Europe as well (25, 26). In Germany even the naturist and free spirited frei korper kultur (FKK) physique movement occasionally adopted the classical pose (27). In America, Edwin Townsend’s nude and almost nude, but classically posed, images of Tony Sansone (28), came to be regarded as the perfect male physique.

Balletic sensuality and occasional nudity was never far from classical themes in its music, programming, and staging, so classical images are found as to be expected by noted dancers and choreographers of the first half of the twentieth century like Isadora Duncan, Nijinsky (here shown with Nureyev as Nijinsky in the film on Nijinsky’s life) (29), Ted Shawn (30), the Greek dancer Vassos Kanellos shown among the classical reliefsof the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco (31); The Paul Taylor dancers at Jacob's Pillow (32); George Platt Lynes’ then-illegal nude photos of George Balanchine’s Orpheus Ballet in 1948 (33), Lincoln Kirstein, and others.

The gay subtext between the World Wars can be found in George Platt Lynes’ mythologies (34) which predated the Nazi abuse of the classical tradition by Hitler (35), and his photographer, Leni Riefenstahl (36), the German Nazi sculptor Arno Breker (37) who adopted classical antecedents for his commissions by the Third Reich, and the comparable athletic neoclassical sculptures by various sculptors for Mussolini’s Foro Italico near Rome here seen in photographs by Carl Van Vechten (38) and by George Mott (39). Fashion and landscape photographers of the twenties including George Hoyningen-Heune of Horst (40) and Herbert List (41, 42, 43) used classical themes in an art deco mode and documented their travels in Italy and Greece before the Second World War.

Strength and Health magazine from the 1930s on (44) included cover after cover posed after classical statues of Greece, and it reflected numerous male physique photographers in publications that persisted throughout 1950-1970s: the physique images of Lon Hanagan in New York (45, 46), Athletic Model Guild (AMG) (47), AMG narrative films on pseudo-classical topics (48), the Grecian Guild (49); Bruce of Los Angeles (Bruce Bellas, here in a parody of the Roman sculpture of the Dying Gaul (50), Spartan Studios (51), John Arnt of Seattle (52), Fred Kovert of Hollywood, Gregor Arax in Paris, Henri Membre of Paris, Vince of London (Bill Green) (53), Robyn Cooke, Russ Warner, Karoll of Cuba (54), Al Urban (55), Douglas of Detroit, Cliff Oettenger (56), Larry Frisbee (57), Roy Dean, Walter Kundzicz, aka Champion Studios (58), Mel Roberts (59), Colt Studio (Jim French) (60), James Bidgood from the 1971 film Pink Narcissus (61); and their inclusion in a profusion of gay and body building magazines like the Grecian Guild Pictorial (62), Physique Artistry (63), The Young Physique (64), Adonis (65), Male Figure (66), Connoisseur (67), Physique Pictorial (68), Spartan (69), Olympus (70), Gladiator (71), Vigour (72), Hercules Magazine (73), Muscle Boy Magazine (74), Mandate (75), US Male (76) and others. For all of these, the pose from a Greek statue or a column, a trident, or a Roman helmet acted as the recurring “Classical Alibi” to permit the male nude, otherwise suspect by postal and governmental censors until the late 1960s.

This alibi was not without attack in multiple federal obscenity prosecutions, of course. But as Professor David K. Johnson comments, the classical ideal also had its physique detractors. Strength and Health Magazine by June 1957 was especially critical of the gay oriented physique publications trade, calling it a “fairy” trade, and Vim, openly queer, criticized the classical veil in articles like “There are Grecians in the bottom of my garden,” Vim, November 1955, and “Rollicking Romans Pictorial,” Vim, September 1956.

In the noted pornography prosecution in Minneapolis against the publishers of DSI publications in 1967, a “classical alibi” was used by the defense, claiming the intended audience was “artists, photographers and sculptors.” As David Johnson observes, the federal court instead found the audience to be a “deviant group,” but acquitted on all charges because the “materials have no appeal to the prurient interests of the intended recipient deviant group; do not exceed the limits of candor tolerated by the contemporary national community; and are not utterly without redeeming social value.” Numerous reversals of obscenity prosecutions fleshed out the broadening contours of the First Amendment over the next several years.

Once the Supreme Court allowed male nude images to be sent in the mail in 1967 and thereafter, the legal need for the “Classical Alibi” largely ended, but the Greek and Roman influence continues in photography, and particularly for a context for male nudes, as the past continues to be mined for inspiration for subject or fashion.

Classically influenced film, and later television, brought action and flesh to the theme of the classics, from the days of the silent films, through two Ben Hurs of 1925 (77) and 1959 (78), to Steve Reeves in Hercules in 1958 (79), which then fomented some 180 “Macaroni Muscle” flicks in the next half dozen years, to the aspirations of classical male sexuality reflected in the 1981 porn film Centurians of Rome (80). Serious art films followed with gay subtexts in films by Derek Jarman’s Sebastiane of 1974 (Latin with English subtitles) (81), Fellini’s Satyricon with its fantastic classical imagery of 1969 (82), and the pansexual fantasies of the Penthouse Caligula, 1979 (83). The Roman action film tradition reflected sexuality, including gay sexuality, in many films including Spartacus, 1960, Bi Claudius, 1994, the TV series of Hercules: the Legendary Journeys, 1995-1999, and Xena Princess Warrior, 1995-2001, the Oscar and box office triumph of Gladiator, 2000, and on to the explicitly gay but barely costumed Conquered, 2001 (84), Gladiators Eroticus (lesbian lovers), 2001, and the more mainstream cinema of Troy in 2004, TV’s recent series of Rome from 2005, the bulked up Greek warriors of 300 in 2007 (85), the special effects of Clash of the Titans, 2010, and many more.

Although the Classical Alibi is no longer needed for legal reasons, the modern photographer has continued the adaptations and inspirations of the classical trope for male nudity, including Robert Mapplethorpe (86), Arthur Tress (87), Andres Serrano, Pierre and Gilles, John O’Rielley, Hugh Holland, Harvey Ferdschneider (88), Joel-Peter Witkin (89), Bill Costa (90), Robert Flynt, Hans Fahrmeyer (91), and Len Prince (92).

Advertising (93), parodies, and spoofs have long looked to the classics for a cloak of tradition and validation. Parading gladiators and toga parties are an enduring fetish for costumes and themes for gay events for reasons that seem to range from simple inspiration for a muscular image to a search for formal validation by an ancient society whose art and history valorized the male nude and homosexuality. Transexuals, hermaphrodites and ladies clutching columns also draw on the classics for the “Classical Alibi” from time to time (94).

Eastern manifestations of the admiration for classical male nudity, which is notably uncommon in much Eastern art, include the Pulitzer-winning writer Yukio Mishima who was inspired by and posed by Kishin Shinoyama in 1966 as the Roman saint, St. Sebastian, as well as a later Thai image showing a quest for the idealized perfection of the neo-Grecian body in conjunction with the Roman marble group of the Wrestlers (95).

Thus, in conclusion, the classical excuse for male nudity in photography from the 1860s on helped bridge the attacks of the censorship of the Victorian age, the Comstock laws, and later postal persecutions, until male nudity became once again legally recognized as art and not salaciousness. The classical tradition is now no longer a mere legal “Alibi,” but has remained as one of the persistently enduring sources for contemporary depictions of male nudity.  

 -July 2, 2010

 selected bibliography



No copyright is claimed as to any of the individual images contained herein. Any applicable copyright is retained by the owner thereof. The writing of this summary was not compensated nor is it for sale. Any nude models photographed after 1994 were over 18 years of age when the photographs were taken and any required records are maintained by the respective photographers; those from earlier dates are not explicitly sexual and are exempt from federal record requirements. These images are presented under the doctrine of fair use for a scholarly and historical purpose and for avenues to further research and exhibition. These images may appeal to the gay viewer but nothing is implied here concerning the sexuality of the model or photographer. Anyone holding a copyright or depicted in any of the images may request credit where it is lacking, or immediate removal, by contacting the editor.