Chicken-skin gloves, history of beards and The Descent of Man

by Ola Wojtkiewicz, Senior Curator, 27 January 2017

Some time before the opening of Looking Good | The Male Gaze from Van Dyck to Lucian Freud (24 June – 1 October 2017) at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, I found myself discovering a whole new realm situated somewhere on the outskirts of art historical research. Instead of the usual digging into the complex biographies and outstanding achievements of the 28 sitters who feature on the portraits selected for the exhibition, I have indulged in somewhat unorthodox investigations into their style and self-fashioning.

The exhibition I’m curating aims to illustrate the evolution of male appearance over the centuries, and to present shifting approaches to manhood from the Renaissance until now. As a result I’m drawn to books such as Dress and Morality by Aileen Ribeiro, Gender and Formation of Taste in 18th Century Britain by Robert W. Jones, or the just published and quite revelatory The Descent of Man by Grayson Perry.

Grayson Perry, Richard Ansett, 2013. National Portrait Gallery. Commissioned for BBC Radio 4's Reith Lectures 2013 by Anna Lenihan, BBC Pictures.

Fashion and Masculinity in Renaissance Florence by Elizabeth Currie has accompanied me on my daily train commute to work. It unlocks so many fascinating, yet little known, truths about Italian men of the 16th century. In 1500s Italy the boundaries between the sexes were thought to be porous and amorphous. The notion that masculinity was multiform, rather than unitary and monolithic, persisted. This sheds new light on an early work from the National Galleries of Scotland's collections which I recently added to the exhibition – Young Man Tying a Garter attributed to Francesco Salviati. This enigmatic painting from Tuscany, with its sumptuous garments, rich tonality and somewhat suggestive content will significantly contribute to our exploration of different modes of masculinity in the visual arts.

Portrait of a Young Man Tying his Garter, attributed to Francesco Salviati, mid-16th century.

One of the aspects of the exhibition will be a careful study of a modern male icon and its prevalent iconography. To better understand a visual magic of celebrities who are famed for their good looks, I have watched Mick Jagger perform, scrutinised Linford Christie’s sculptural muscles and listened to Tinie Tempeh’s rap. Correspondence with John Byrne, who appears to be a prototype of a modern hipster, proved to me how much importance some men place on the clothes they wear, and that art and fashion are indeed close relatives.

I had never expected to engage with internet-based essays on the history of the beard and moustache but it compelled me to compare Samuel Bacon’s beard with that sported by the flamboyant Sir David Murray with an open mind and fresh curiosity.

Sir Nathaniel Bacon, Sir Nathaniel Bacon, c.1625. National Portrait Gallery © National Portrait Gallery, London.

Instruction manuals on appropriate dress for men began to appear from the 16th century; their contemporary equivalents in the form of style magazines for men or blogs on sartorial codes populate the web. Charles Baudelaire was convinced that a ‘dandy must live and sleep before a mirror’ and the comment appears chillingly resonant in our times when youth, beauty and celebrities are revered.  

Juxtaposing Elizabethan courtier Robert Deveraux, a provocative lovelock adorning his shoulders, with Robert Mapplethorpe’s Smutty from 1980 in Looking Good provides a unique opportunity. That of considering masculinity as a process; and gloriously portrayed by artists keen on capturing identity, gender and the intimate sense of self.

Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, 1565 - 1601. Statesman and courtier, Nicholas Hilliard, 1588

Looking Good, The Male Gaze from Van Dyck to Lucian Freud opens at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery on June 24th. Admission free.



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