Aesthetics, sensuality and the visual image

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Left: Dancer Antonio Rodrigues, photo by Bruno Benini, Melbourne, 1960s. Benini archive acquired with funding assistance from the Australian Government’s National Cultural Heritage Account, 2009.
Right: Saint Sebastian by Guido Reni. Prado Museum, Madrid

It is an interesting analysis to see how the male form is conceived aesthetically within two very different contexts and mediums. The seventeenth century painter Guido Reni, and the Italian-Australian fashion photographer, Bruno Benini, were very different individuals. Nonetheless certain characteristics of both men are of comparative interest. Reni and Benini were both Italian. Guido was born in Bologna, home to Europe’s first University and a hub of seventeenth century artistic activity; Bruno, in the picturesque Umbrian town of Massa Marittima, sixty-five kilometres south-west of Sienna. Guido and Bruno’s depictions of the nude have also both been interpreted by some in erotic terms.

The sensuality of Guido’s semi-naked saint, caught between pain and in an ecstasy that transcends the pain of martyrdom, has been seen as erotic by popular art historian Simon Schama. In his series The Power of Art, Saint Theresa’s ecstasy by the sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini is even conceived as tantamount to orgasm. None of the male nude photographs by Benini were included in the recent Benini exhibition, Creating the Look: Benini and fashion photography (30 July 2010 – 18 April 2011).

I believe we do a certain injustice to both depictions of the naked form in seeing it predominantly through these post-Freudian eyes. The sensual and sexual are rather contained within both these pictures via conformity to particular aesthetic cultural discourses. In Reni’s case, this is embodied in an intimate expression of Classicism and in Bruno’s of twentieth century Modernism. For a pre-Freudian, seventeenth century audience, the key to Reni’s painting was perceived in the action of the pose. Somewhat related to what the Frenchman Andre Felibien, derivative of Aristotle, called, The Unity of Action. This encapsulated a theoretical belief in pictorial clarity that required the thoughts and intentions of an individual, to be conveyed in the action of the body. Thus the saint’s tilted head, the gaze of his eyes and the contraposta of his torso, are all subtly crafted to lead the viewer’s thoughts beyond the transience of both sensuality and pain, to a meditation upon the constant and the eternal. The painting is thus carefully set up as an aesthetic paradox between the visual and the intellectual.

In quite a few of Bruno’s pictures the body is viewed reductively. This originated with the photographer Alfred Steiglitz, who in the 1930s began photographing parts of the body in isolation. This was a transition from the Formalism of Modernist painting to the camera lens. As such, the body in many of Bruno’s photographs becomes an abstracted quasi-architecture. The sensual and erotic are explicitly contained within the confines of an expression of shape for its own sake.

In both pictures we are not simply looking at a naked figure. The erotic and the sensual are not free agents rather both are culturally prescribed, and thus contained, by differing aesthetic discursive agendas.

Post by Dominique Millar, Curatorial Intern (Master of Art Curatorship, University of Sydney)

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