Male nudes take centre stage in Paris

The male nude took centre stage in Paris on Tuesday as a controversial exhibition celebrating the masculine form went on show at the celebrated Musee d'Orsay.

Juxtaposing traditional painting and sculptures with contemporary homoerotic photography, a museum better known for its impressionist masterpieces has brought together more than 200 pieces in a collection designed to stimulate and amuse in equal measure.

"It is an exhibition that doesn't take itself too seriously," Guy Cogeval, the museum's president and one of the curators of the exhibition, told AFP.

Entitled "Masculin/Masculin", the collection features 70 paintings, around 20 sculptures and numerous photographs. It is due to run until February 2.

Inspired by a similarly-themed exhibition staged by Vienna's Leopold Museum in Autumn 2012, the Orsay display aims to offer an insight into how ideals of the male body have evolved over the last two centuries.

The homoerotic charge of certain works is deliberately played up, particularly in a section dedicated to the male as an object of desire.

The museum has opted for a thematic approach, with an eye for thought-provoking combinations across the ages.

Cogeval cites as an example the decision to place a monumental sculpture by Arno Breker, a German artist who worked for Hitler, alongside a photograph of three footballers naked but for their boots and their socks in the blue, white and red colours of the French flag.

Entitled "Vive la France", the photograph, by the gay duo Pierre and Giles, features one black, one white and one Arab player and is intended to represent the multicultural make-up of the French team that won the 1998 World Cup, an event hailed at the time as a new dawn for racial integration in France.

"The Breker statue is presented in such a way that you see it starting with the buttocks. That's the best way to see a Nazi sculpture," Cogeval said with a smile.

The "Vive la France" photograph caused a stir when it was used to promote the original exhibition in Vienna.

The sight of the three footballers with their manhoods proudly displayed on buses proved too much for some burghers of the Austrian capital and the offending areas had to be covered by a red rectangle.

Given the overall tone of the Paris exhibition, organisers are braced for the possibility of similar controversy, particularly as the exhibition also features nude representations of Christ and the arrow-studded body of the early Christian martyr Saint Sebastian.

"Showing the extent to which an (image of) a religious figure like Saint Sebastian can be ambiguous about the line between pain and pleasure is entering very intimate territory and that could trouble or shock certain visitors," co-curator Xavier Rey acknowledged.

Cogeval is resigned to losing a section of the museum's usual audience but is hopeful that most visitors will come with an open mind. "I think the exhibition is so beautiful that I believe it will win them over," he said.

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