Exhibition Guide

Explore Masculinities: Liberation through Photography at the Gropius Bau online.

Masculinities: Liberation through Photography explores the diverse ways masculinity has been experienced, performed, coded and socially constructed in photography and film from the 1960s to the present day.

Simone de Beauvoir’s famous declaration that “one is not born a woman, but rather becomes one” provides a helpful springboard for considering what it means to be a male in today’s world, as well as the place of photography and film in shaping masculinity. What we have thought of as “masculine” has changed considerably throughout history and within different cultures. The traditional social dominance of the male has determined a gender hierarchy, which continues to underpin societies around the world.

In Europe and North America, the characteristics and power dynamics of the dominant masculine figure – historically defined by physical size and strength, assertiveness and aggression – though still pervasive today, began to be challenged and transformed in the 1960s. Amid a climate of sexual revolution, struggle for civil rights and raised class consciousness, the growth of the gay rights movement, the period’s counterculture and opposition to the Vietnam War, large sections of society argued for a loosening of the straitjacket of narrow gender definitions.

Set against the backdrop of the #MeToo movement, when manhood is under increasing scrutiny and terms such as “toxic” and “fragile” masculinity fill endless column inches, an investigation of this expansive subject is particularly timely, especially given current global politics characterised by male world leaders shaping their image as “strong” men.

Touching on queer identity, race, power and patriarchy, men as seen by women, stereotypes of dominant masculinity as well as the family, the exhibition presents masculinity in all its myriad forms, rife with contradictions and complexities. Embracing the idea of multiple “masculinities” and rejecting the notion of a singular “ideal man”, the exhibition argues for an understanding of masculinity liberated from societal expectations and gender norms.

Disrupting the Archetype

Over the last six decades, artists have consistently sought to destabilise the narrow definitions of gender that determine our social structures in order to encourage new ways of thinking about identity, gender and sexuality. Disrupting the Archetype explores the representation of conventional and at times clichéd masculine subjects such as soldiers, cowboys, athletes, bullfighters, body builders and wrestlers. By reconfiguring the representation of traditional masculinity – loosely defined as an idealised, dominant heterosexual masculinity – the artists presented here challenge our ideas of these hypermasculine stereotypes.

Across different cultures and spaces, the military has been central to the construction of masculine identities – which has been explored through the work of Wolfgang Tillmans and Adi Nes, among others, while Collier Schorr and Sam Contis’ powerful works address the dominant and enduring representation of the lone cowboy. Athleticism, often perceived as a proxy for strength, which is associated with masculinity, is called into question by Catherine Opie and Rineke Dijkstra’s tender portraits. The male body, a cornerstone for artists such as John Coplans, Robert Mapplethorpe and Cassils, is meanwhile exposed as a fleshy canvas, constantly in flux.

Historically, the non-western male body has undergone a complex process of subjectification through the Western gaze – invariably presented as either warlike or sexually charged. Viewed against this context, the work of Fouad Elkoury and Akram Zaatari, as well as the found photographs of Taliban fighters that Thomas Dworzak discovered in Afghanistan, can be read as deconstructing the Orientalist gaze.

Masculinities: Liberation through Photography, Installationview, 16 October 2020 until 10 January 2021, Gropius Bau. Photo: Luca Girardini

Masculinities: Liberation through Photography, Installationview, 16 October 2020 until 10 January 2021, Gropius Bau. Photo: Luca Girardini

Male Order: Power, Patriarchy and Space

Male Order invites the viewer to reflect on the construction of male power, gender and class. The artists gathered here have all variously attempted to expose and subvert how certain types of masculine behaviour have created inequalities both between and within genders. Two ambitious, multi-part works, Richard Avedon’s The Family (1976) and Karen Knorr’s Gentlemen (1981-83) focus on typically besuited white men who occupy the corridors of power, while simultaneously foregrounding the historic exclusion not only of women but also of other marginalised masculinities.

Male-only organisations, such as the military, private members’ clubs and college fraternities, have often served as an arena for the performance of “toxic” masculinity, as chronicled in Andrew Moisey’s The American Fraternity: An Illustrated Ritual Manual (2018). This startling book charts the misdemeanours of fraternity members alongside an indexical image bank of US Presidents, alongside leaders of government and industry who have belonged at one time or another to these fraternities. Richard Mosse’s film Fraternity (2007) takes a different tack by painting a portrait of male rage that is both playful and profoundly sincere.

Too Close to Home: Family and Fatherhood

Since its invention, photography has been a powerful vehicle for the construction and documentation of family narratives. In contrast to the conventions of the traditional family portrait, the artists gathered here deliberately set out to record the “messiness” of life, reflecting on misogyny, violence, sexuality, mortality, intimacy and unfolding family dramas, presenting a more complex and not always comfortable vision of fatherhood and masculinity.

Loss and the ageing male figure are central to the work of both Masahisa Fukase and Larry Sultan. Their respective projects marked a new departure in the way men photographed each other, serving as a commentary on how old age engenders a loss of masculinity. An examination of everyday life, Richard Billingham’s tender yet bleak portraits of his father, as chronicled in Ray’s a Laugh (1996), cast a brutally honest eye on his alcoholic father, Ray, against a backdrop of social decline.

Anna Fox’s disturbing autobiographical work undermines expectations of the traditional family album while revealing the mechanics of paternalistic power. Meanwhile, the father-daughter relationship is brought into sharp focus in Aneta Bartos’ sexually charged series Family Portrait (2015–2018), which unsettles traditional family boundaries.

Masculinities: Liberation through Photography, Installationview, 16 October 2020 until 10 January 2021, Gropius Bau. Photo: Luca Girardini

Masculinities: Liberation through Photography, Installationview, 16 October 2020 until 10 January 2021, Gropius Bau. Photo: Luca Girardini

Queering Masculinity

In defiance of the prejudice and legal constraints against homosexuality in Europe, the United States and beyond over the last century, the works presented in Queering Masculinity highlight how artists from the 1960s onwards have forged a new politically charged queer aesthetic.

In the 1970s, artists such as Peter Hujar, David Wojnarowicz, Sunil Gupta and Hal Fischer photographed gay lifestyles in New York and San Francisco in a bid to claim public visibility and therefore legitimacy at a time when homosexuality was still a criminal offence. Reflecting on their own queer experience and creating sensual bodies of work, artists such as Rotimi Fani-Kayode and Isaac Julien portrayed “Black gay desire” while Catherine Opie’s seminal work Being and Having (1991) documented members of the dyke, butch and BDSM communities in San Francisco, playing with the physical attributes associated with hypermasculinity in order to overturn traditional binary understandings of gender.

Reclaiming the Black Body

Giving visual form to the complexity of the Black male experience, this section foregrounds artists who have, over the last five decades, consciously subverted expectations of race, gender and the white gaze by reclaiming the power to fashion their own identities.

From Samuel Fosso’s playfully staged self-portraits taken in his studio, in which he performs to the camera sporting flares and platforms boots or flirtatiously reveals his youthful male physique, to Kiluanji Kia Henda’s fictional scenarios in which he adopts the troubled personas of African men of power, the works presented here reflect on how Black masculinity challenges the status quo.

Rooted in social, cultural and economic oppression and repression, the representation of Black masculinity in the US is born out of a violent history of slavery and prejudice. Unbranded: Reflections in Black by Corporate America 1968–2008 (2005–08) by Hank Willis Thomas draws attention to the ways in which corporate America has commodified the African American male experience while simultaneously perpetuating and reinforcing cultural stereotypes. Similarly, Deana Lawson’s powerful work Sons of Cush (2016) highlights how the Black male figure is often “idealised (in their physical beauty) and pathologized by the culture (as symbols of violence or fear)”.

Masculinities: Liberation through Photography, Installationview, 16 October 2020 bis 10 January 2021, Gropius Bau. Photo: Luca Girardini

Masculinities: Liberation through Photography, Installationview, 16 October 2020 until 10 January 2021, Gropius Bau. Photo: Luca Girardini

Women on Men: Reversing the Male Gaze

As the second-wave feminist movement gained momentum through the 1960s and 1970s, female activists sought to expose and critique entrenched ideas about masculinity and to articulate alternative perspectives on gender and representation. Against this background, or motivated by its legacy, the artists gathered here have made men their subject with the radical intention of subverting their power, calling into question the notion that men are active and women passive.

In the early 1970s, pioneers of feminist art such as Laurie Anderson and Annette Messager consciously objectified the male body in a bid to expose the uncomfortable nature of the dominant male gaze. In contrast, filmmakers such as Tracey Moffatt and Hilary Lloyd turn the tables on male representations of desire to foreground the power of the female gaze.

In his humorous series The Ideal Man (1978), Hans Eijkelboom invited ten women to fashion him into their image of the “ideal” man. Through this act Eijkelboom reverses the male to female power dynamic and inverts the traditional gender hierarchy.