Venice

Bruce Weber

Palazzo Fortuny

Just as the female body has been exalted in Western painting from the Renaissance on, so has the male body played a prominent role in the history of photography. Despite the homophobic moralism of the dominant culture, male eroticism has been a frequent theme of photographers, from the 19th-century pioneer Baron Wilhelm von Gloeden up to the current work of Bruce Weber. Clearly, a great deal has changed since the semiclandestine circulation of the baron’s photos—indeed, Weber’s unabashedly admiring images appear in fashion magazines these days with great regularity—but a veil of alibis still must cover representations of the male body; in the past it was Hellenic myths, while today it is sports or fashion.

This Weber exhibition in Venice consisted of 21 photographs of athletes, actors, and soldiers, the same works that were included in the group show organized by Jean-Christophe Ammann at the Basel Kunsthalle last spring. For athletes and soldiers, the body is built up purely to function at its peak. Beauty, although it is not the goal, is one of the by-products of assiduous training and strict discipline, and an unselfconscious beauty is more precious than a beauty that is consciously cultivated. For actors, beauty is more the latter sort, though it is often pursued to meet the needs (perceived or actual) of a performance. And so these are bodies where eros manifests itself in the glance of the observer (in Roland Barthes’ terminology, the operator who becomes spectator). Thus what we have here is the setting up of the imagination of the voyeur as the bestower of beauty, no matter what stance or attitude is projected by the object of the image, which can be reluctant or obliging, timidly embarrassed or ostentatiously arrogant, willingly complicit or casually friendly.

In these photographs the bodies are never completely nude but are partially covered with other skins—uniforms, costumes, sports helmets—which, as they both hide and reveal, assume a fetishistic value. The latter also applies to the sets, when they exist: athletic fields, corners of gymnasiums, an unmade bed in a hotel room, a car in a parking lot, a film studio. Sex never appears, for in this search for pleasure there is no action, which remains secret or repressed or, in any case, outside the image. In other words, what is missing is passion (which at least is shown, however crudely, in Robert Mapplethorpe’s work). Here, we are witness to a parade of bodies with no warmth, which explains the continual sense of loss and nostalgia that these images evoke, accentuated by the very age of the models, all young, some of them adolescent. As we look at them, the myth of youth collides with our memories.

Weber’s photographs are looser and more banal compared to the more complex, more problematic, and more dramatic work of Mapplethorpe. Weber interrogates neither himself nor his subject, as did his friend and teacher Diane Arbus; he uses his instrument rather than questioning it. His work might seem superficial if Weber himself did not offer us an interpretive key: the photos of brothers, where like encounters like, and especially the emblematic paradox of twins, where like is specularly changed into the identical, a moment of epiphany of erotic pleasure, the end of the search according to the Platonic myth of love. (In a comic strip by Moebius, the spy from Arcturus begs the hero who is about to kill him: “together . . . I love you . . . you could assume any form you want . . . even your own if you desired it.”)

Pier Luigi Tazzi

Translated from the Italian by Meg Shore.