Gender bender: hermaphrodites through the ages
An incredible exhibition just opened at the British Museum in London, Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art. The show plots in part how the Greek nude helped define our standards of beauty. Since the eighteenth century and the birth of art history (largely through the work of Johann Winckelmann) the Greek nude has been held as the highest form of civilisation and beauty.
One sculpture particularly struck me as interesting in defining beauty in the show, Sleeping Hermaphroditus. It reminded me for how long the androgynous male figure has been around as one of the primary types of male beauty. The image of Leonardo DiCaprio draped by a swan shot by Annie Liebovitz came to mind, or the equally angelic images of a young Brad Pitt (with ripped grunge jeans and coral lips).
What western image making has valorised for thousands of years is the other-wordliness of the boy on the cusp of manhood. The Sleeping Hermaphroditus has the body of a man with the sensual curves of a woman, or young boy for that matter. Obviously in ancient Greece and later in the Renaissance the figure was primarily an angelic image of purity. Plato himself dreamed of a mythic time where there were no sexes, just perfect androgynous couples embodying a perfect unified love. The alchemists too saw the androgyne as a perfect fusion of man and woman, a perfect blend of the material and the spiritual.
What is important to me is that this history of the androgyne in images has a strong legacy in modern art and photography. Obviously it is not quite the same but it persists and continues nonetheless. Another art historian of the twentieth century, Aby Warburg, has called this the "afterlife" of images, almost as if images of the past become part of a collective consciousness (sometimes without us knowing it).
The androgyne came back to Western image-making very strongly at the end of the nineteenth century in the works of the Pre-Raphaelites and perhaps more importantly through the British Decadents like Aubrey Beardsley and Oscar Wilde. But there were other approaches that came out in the twentieth century too. For the Surrealists the androgyne was a perfect attack against Bourgeois morality, which asked for a clear and stratified split between the sexes. Their androgynous figures caused shock and confusion to an audience already anxious about what the modern would bring.
Finally towards the end of the century the Frenchman Jean Baudrillard would say the androgyne was the perfect placeholder for the new mediated sexuality (long before Snapchat and Tinder proved him correct). For Baudrillard, our society is all about the image of sexuality, what he called hypersexuality, but as a surface, with no sexual reality beneath it. Baudrillard used Michael Jackson as an example of what he called the "God child Embryo." I often think of the paradoxes of Kim Kardashian's sexual character here, on one hand she is constantly the virginal, abstinent, non-drinker and on the other always presenting an image of sex.
I think that this is the history that Jean-Paul Gaultier was tapping into when he sent Andrej Pejic down the runway in a wedding dress in 2011 (Andreja has recently returned to the runway at Melbourne Fashion Week). This is not to take anything away from the quite real aspects of being transgender in our society and the difficulty of transitioning in a world that still likes clear boundaries.
Jazz Jennings' use in the latest Johnson & Johnson ads is probably more interested in these real aspects of life as a transgender teen. But in general, fashions' images are not just about being transgender. When the fashion world uses the androgynous male figure they are using an image that has long been associated with beauty, magic and also critique. It is a deeply hopeful image that asks questions of where we all sit in regard to gender.
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