Uchacz: Erotic Heroic: Maerten van Heemskerck’s Experimental Mode of Masculinity

The uneasy and uneven introduction of the male nude into Netherlandish painting in the middle of the sixteenth century resulted from the confrontation between two cultural forces in flux: the codes of masculinity and the conventions of artistic representation. I argue that this confrontation gave rise to a new and experimental figural mode—the erotic heroic—which attempted to define a visual erotics for the relatively novel category of the male nude. This aim is most clearly articulated in Maerten van Heemskerck’s Strong Men series, in which the artist subjects the muscular male bodies of mythological and Old Testament figures to erotic conventions taken from the presentation of female nudes and scenes of morally reprehensible coupling. Heemskerck’s nudes cultivate aesthetic and moral tensions between a series of binaries: ideal and corporeal, masculine and feminine, active and passive, virtue and abandon. The otherwise heroic figures take on uncannily suggestive undertones that point toward the difficulties and ethical implications of eroticizing the heroic.

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