Walker Downey (Class of 2013) discusses the role of pain in portrayals of the male body.
This essay was originally published on September 15, 2014.
In Karl Zerbe’s Job (1949) [Fig. 1], William Rimmer’s The Fallen Gladiator (1861) [Fig. 2], and Walker Hancock’s Scale-model for Pennsylvania Railroad War Memorial (1949-1952) [Fig. 3]—three seemingly disparate works comprised by the American Art collection of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts—the male body is deployed as a projection of psychic pain and grief, repurposed as a memorial for tragedies both grand and personal. In these works, personal neuroses, mounting anxieties, and collective sorrows are wrought in bone and tendon, muscle and sinew, and the masculine body is revealed as a site or stage on which tensions of the male consciousness are dramatically enacted. Not only do such works potentially serve to undermine conventional notions of masculine dominance, but, in the case of The Falling Gladiator and Scale-model for Pennsylvania Railroad War Memorial, they cast the subject in contradictory terms, rendering him as both invulnerable and exposed, godlike and fallible. It is through these conflicted interpretations of the suffering male as a being of redemption and selfless sacrifice that one sees the inherently unstable nature of masculine constructions in American art.
No work offers a more distilled physical manifestation of this fundamental instability and psychic turmoil than William Rimmer’s The Falling Gladiator of 1861, a piece which, despite its imposing presence and bronze-clad exterior, threatens to fracture from the strain of its embedded crises. As many scholars and historians will attest, Rimmer was not a man marked by security or soundness of psyche; a country doctor who spent the early years of his career languishing in obscurity, he was a man plagued by personal shortcomings and numerous tragedies (1). Whereas Rimmer’s family carried with it a burdensome secret that left them wounded and isolated—the belief that Rimmer’s father, Thomas Rimmer, was in fact the French dauphin by birth and destined to be Louis XVII, it was also mired in poverty; working variously as a shoe-maker, doctor, and portrait-painter, Rimmer toiled but largely failed to sustain his wife, who, between 1841 to 1859, had lost five of eight children in infancy and been rendered an invalid (2). With all this in mind, one might see why Rimmer identified time and time again with saints and martyrs—subjects who would come to dominate his body of work (3).
Diverging significantly from the pristine, neo-classical tendencies of contemporaneous sculptors such as Antonio Canova and Hiram Powers, Rimmer’s process and aesthetic were characterized by rawness and frenzy; for him, each work was an exorcism (4). As Jeffrey Weidman posits in his essay, “William Rimmer: Creative Imagination and Daemonic Power,” Rimmer’s works “…are what might be called ‘soulscapes,’ representing the coalescence of feeling-toned theme and form, in which deeply personal aspects are mingled with more impersonal, universal concerns” (5). Thus we arrive at The Falling Gladiator, a piece considered by some to be among Rimmer’s masterpieces. Depicting a fully nude, yet helmeted, athlete in the midst of a tragic fall, The Falling Gladiator traps a moment of utter grief and humiliation in cast metal, and uses the musculature of the male body as a palette with which to paint this anguish. Removed of all the slack and limpness that seizes the body in collapse, the subject appears to be stretched and strained to the point of near-rupture, its entire exterior shell in a state of a unyielding contraction (6). One elbow firmly juts upwards at a jarringly oblique angle while the gladiator gazes towards the heaven, perhaps pleading for deliverance.
Although Rimmer was undoubtedly well versed in anatomy—he would later teach the subject—he attempted in this piece to emphasize sentiment and spirit over academic precision and technical execution; “Avoid skeleton outlines. Make no display of technical anatomy. A work of art should be something more than the solution of a problem in science,” Rimmer wrote, nodding towards this decision to sacrifice a measure of empirical truth and realism (7). It is ironic, then, that The Falling Gladiator’s body—its strictly corporeal dimension—seems to be all that critics paid mind to; James Jackson Jarves, a well-known critic and collector at the time of the work’s completion, wrote in The Art Idea (1865) that in The Falling Gladiator, “the knowledge of anatomical science displayed is wonderful, although the choice of time and action partakes more of mechanical than aesthetic art (8). Even the didactic panel accompanying the piece at the MFA fails to mention its metaphysical element, choosing instead to highlight its “extraordinary naturalism” and “knowledge of the human form” (9).
It is in this puzzling response that the conflicted nature of Rimmer’s work—and, more broadly, artistic interpretations of the suffering male—begins to reveal itself. Though The Falling Gladiator is a work informed, one can assume, by Rimmer’s personal demons—Lincoln Kirstein alleges that Rimmer never again worked on this scale because “…the effort to isolate so extreme a force, to fix so violent a condition, drained the artist”—this inherent vulnerability and torment is at odds with the figure’s shell of rippling, Herculean physicality and subtle eroticization (10). Rimmer’s figure, while indeed “falling,” refuses to appear wholly defeated; its strain, its upward-bolting form, and its nudity (this is a significant detail, as the male nude was certainly not ubiquitous within the artistic canon of Rimmer’s time), speak to an undeniable sense masculine posturing (11). Although Rimmer wished to channel his personal shame and anguish into a portrait of suffering, he could not entirely abandon the notion of the male as a dominant, impervious force, and thus imbued The Falling Gladiator with a glorified physicality and sense of unyielding firmness.
The figure’s resilient corporeality is made only more evident by The Falling Gladiator’s presentation within the MFA’s Art of the Americas collection; placed not in a gallery but in a transitional space—the Nancy and Edward Roberts Lobby, near a stairwell—the piece stands on display behind a multi-story sheet of glass, lit by a gleaming overhead light which causes each arc and channel of the figure’s muscle tissue to coruscate wildly. The Falling Gladiator stands effectively alone, flanked only by barren walls and Rimmer’s plaster Torso of 1877 [Fig. 4]. Its presentation, like its rendering, speaks not to shame and vulnerability, but to gilded heroism.
This problematic and conflicted nature inherent to depictions of the suffering male is the subject of close reexamination and deconstruction in Kent L. Brintnall’s Ecce Homo, in which it is posited that the construction of the “male-body-in-pain” can be traced back to the crucifixion of Jesus, a narrative that engendered a genre of representation in which the suffering male is stripped bare and cast in a role of subordination, humiliation, and vulnerability—a role which can very well be read as a “repudiation of the dominant fiction of masculine subjectivity” (12).
Says Brintnall, speaking specifically to the crucifixion’s interpretation in Mel Gibson’s film, The Passion of the Christ:
“In many ways, the Passion narrative can be interpreted as a progressive rendering visible of Jesus’s body and its distance from hegemonic understandings of masculine supremacy. On the cross, his body not only suffers and dies; it is clearly visible…At each moment, he is a spectacle, looked at, caught in a controlling gaze” (13).
Brintnall goes on to extend this characterization of Jesus as a humiliated, subjugated figure to the Eucharist:
“To remember Jesus, believers are instructed to use tangible elements that make him—and his suffering and death—perpetually visible. Jesus’s incarnation, like his crucifixion, has often been characterized as an act of degradation, humiliation, and submission. This willingness to be degraded and humiliated—while in the form of a man—renders visible the vulnerability of masculinity” (14).
The suffering male body, Brintnall contends, holds the key to “dismantling hegemonic masculinity” and “exposing the lie of the dominant fiction”, revealing the male not as an impervious force, but a conquered mortal whose weakness is laid bare both figuratively and literally (15). It is perhaps this unspoken notion that leads artists and directors alike—more specifically, male ones— to shroud icons of naked vulnerability, loss, grief, in raw, emboldened physicality and emphasize, even eroticize, their subjects’ corporeal nature dimension. In this way, the suffering male—whether a blood-spattered Sylvester Stallone in Rambo or Rimmer’s The Fallen Gladiator—is cast in contradictory and perhaps impossible terms, forced to embody pain and grief without submitting fully to it and thus sacrificing his innate maleness (16).
This knotty, conflicted construct of the “male-body-in-pain”, as Brintnall refers to it, is exemplified further by two more pieces in the MFA’s Art of the Americas wing: Karl Zerbe’s Job, and Walker Hancock’s Scale-model for Pennsylvania Railroad War Memorial, each of which refracts the suffering male paradigm, set forth by the crucifixion narrative, through a very different lens. Both pieces occupy the upper-level gallery space devoted to “Expressionism at Midcentury”—a smaller, dimly lit room that lies adjacent to the much larger and comparatively brighter “Abstraction” gallery. The ambiance cultivated by the “Expressionism” gallery is distinctly mournful; with most of the room’s track-lighting left off, the only substantial light emanating from a bulb crowning Hancock’s Scale-model for Pennsylvania Railroad War Memorial, a miasma of solemnity and despair hangs in the air. Twin black benches sit in relative shadow, flanking Scale-model for Pennsylvania Railroad War Memorial as pews might an altar. This somber aura can be ascribed not only to the atmosphere and structure of the room itself, but also to the very content of the works displayed; as the large introductory panel beside the gallery’s entrance reads: “The period from the late 1930s through the late 1950s witnessed dramatic, apocalyptic events around the globe…Artists working in the Americas responded, developing new ways of expressing the raw emotion and devastation of the era” (17).
No piece speaks better to this unifying theme of grief incarnate, and catharsis through creation, than Hancock’s Scale-model for Pennsylvania Railroad War Memorial, which presents the pain and anguish of Rimmer’s The Falling Gladiator writ large. Commissioned three years after the end of WWII, the work is intended to memorialize the 1,307 employees of the Pennsylvania Railroad who gave their lives in battle, and depicts the Archangel Michael, angel of the Resurrection, lifting a mortally wounded soldier from the literally rendered “flames of battle” (18). Though the final work would ultimately stand three times as tall as its plaster prototype, flanked by monumental fluted columns in Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station [Fig. 5], Scale-model for Pennsylvania Railroad War Memorial is a physically arresting presence in its own right, especially in the context of the MFA’s gallery space; situated front-and-center and awash in light, the statue dwarfs all other pieces in the room, with the angel figure’s scythe-like wings threatening to pierce the ceiling above.
Although its size is certainly significant, what is more worthy of attention is the style in which its figures are rendered; though its eventual bronze casting and black granite base would make its towering, exaggerated physicality even more viscerally appreciable, clearly visible in the figures of Scale-model for Pennsylvania Railroad War Memorial is the same sort of imposing masculinity—manifest through sheer monumentality and sharply-chiseled physiques—that characterizes Rimmer’s The Falling Gladiator. Like The Falling Gladiator, the work depicts its subjects in a manner both mournful and heroic; though the suffering male—the wounded soldier—has been struck down, his defeat is temporary, and he awaits heavenly rebirth in the clutches of the Archangel. Just as Rimmer imbued his The Falling Gladiator with a sense of power and glory even in a moment of utter defeat, Hancock may have rendered the figures of Scale-model for Pennsylvania Railroad War Memorial in such masculine fashion in order to dispel any image of vulnerability that his suffering soldier might put forth.
Hancock, in a 1977 interview conducted by Robert Brown for the Archives of American Art, reveals the reservations he had about the design of the monument, which, per the suggestion of the railroad president, was initially intended to feature a dead soldier be lifted up by a “charming lady angel” (19). Both Hancock and the railroad’s vice-president bristled at the idea, finding it “sentimental,” “sweet,” and likely quite emasculating; the V.P. is quoted as saying that the President’s design “makes [him] think of a man who has had a fainting fit and this nice young girl is helping him up” (20). Ultimately, the vice-president convinced the president to scrap his original model in favor of a more dignified depiction; thus, we are left the final incarnation of Hancock’s monument, in which portrait of collective grief is filtered through the essence of virility and towering manhood (21).
If there is a portrait of the suffering male that subverts the tendency to counter elements of vulnerability and mortality with exaggerated sinew and masculine posturing, it is Karl Zerbe’s Job, which his hung just beyond the looming shadow of Hancock’s Scale-model for Pennsylvania Railroad War Memorial in the “Expressionism” gallery. In the work, an emaciated, pallid-skinned male leans upon his knees with hands outstretched, as if pleading to the viewer for liberation from plight. Clothed in tattered rags and rendered in crudely textural encaustic—a technique that Zerbe grew to be deathly allergic to—the titular Old Testament figure in the painting is laid strikingly bare in both physical and emotional terms (22).
Though the painting’s title suggests it is merely an interpretation of a biblical tale, the work is in fact a self-portrait, in which Zerbe has embodied the legendarily ill-fated Job (23). Job, then, ceases to be a work of symbolic or allegorical suffering and instead becomes and explicitly and intensely personal one. Not only does Zerbe make no effort to shroud his identity in this work, but unlike Rimmer and Hancock, he also allows his subject (himself) to fully submit to sorrow and anguish, laying bare his psychic wounds. Says Judith Arlene Bookbinder, in Boston Modern: Figurative Expressionism As Alternative Modernism, “…Zerbe/Job is monumental in his abject condition. He fills almost the entire surface, his kneeling body and imploring hands press up against the picture plane…the nervous lines that originate in Zerbe’s face expand outward in widening undulations around his shoulders and arms as in Munch’s The Scream (24). Fully entrenched in its suffering and free of the pronounced musculature or other overtly-masculine “trappings” deployed in the works of Rimmer and Hancock, the subject of Job is the “male-body-in-pain” spoken of in Kent Brintnall’s Ecce Homo—a portrait of raw, unfiltered, and undressed degradation that “renders visible the vulnerability of masculinity” (25).
Job’s peeling back of the “masculine fiction” is only further underscored by the fact that the piece is given quite an obvious female “twin” or complement within the gallery space; although the subject of Hyman Bloom’s Female Corpse, Back View (1947) [Fig. 6], positioned at the opposite end of the wall as Job, is scarcely recognizable as female at first blush, closer inspection reveals that is an indeed a woman cadaver—seemingly overtaken by rot and decay—lying face down upon a bed. Not only does the piece echo Job in terms of style—Hyman, like Zerbe, makes use of coarse, “nervous” lines and a palette of sickly, ashen earth tones and muddied pastels—but it also plumbs similar, spiritually rooted themes; the work was allegedly inspired by a trip Bloom took to Kenmore Hospital in Boston in 1943, where he first encountered a corpse firsthand. The novel and “harrowing” sight, which resonated powerfully with Bloom, prompted him to explore themes of reincarnation and the nature of the soul in Female Corpse, Back View (26). Though the visual “pairing” of Job and Female Corpse, Back View within the gallery space could indeed be incidental, the juxtaposition remains striking, and casts yet more light upon Zerbe’s self-emasculation in his portrait as a suffering male.
Since its inception in the crucifixion narrative, which generated innumerable depictions of a bloodied, battered Christ stripped bare and gazed upon by onlookers, the construction of the “suffering male” or “male-body-in-pain” has left male artists to grapple with the difficult task of expressing pain or anguish through the male body without reducing it to object of shame and weakness, thereby stripping it of its virility and undermining what Kent Brintnall refers to as “hegemonic understandings of masculine supremacy” (27). This dilemma has led to conflicted depictions such as those seen in William Rimmer’s The Falling Gladiator and Walker Hancock’s Scale-model for Pennsylvania Railroad War Memorial, in which the male subject is caught in a paradoxical space between invulnerability and (often literal) nakedness, somber memorialization and muscular, “macho” affect. Only in Karl Zerbe’s Job is the male body truly given over to psychic pain, with Zerbe laying utterly exposed in a gesture of helplessness and pleading. Although such an image may very well find the artist sacrificing his position of male dominance, further exposing the precariousness of masculine constructions in American art, if offers a pure, untreated vision of suffering, and thus resonates all the more.
(1) Jeffrey Weidman, “William Rimmer: Creative Imagination and Daemonic Power,” in Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies, vol. 10 (Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1983), 148, accessed March 15, 2013, http://0-www.jstor.org.helin.uri.edu/stable/pdfplus/4104335.pdf?acceptTC=true.
(2) Ibid., 151
(4) Lincoln Kirstein, “William Rimmer: His Life and Art,” The Massachusetts Review2, no. 4 (Summer 1961): 688, accessed March 15, 2013, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25086738; Ibid., 692.
(5) Weidman, “Creative Imagination,” 147.
(6) Kirstein, “His Life and Art,” 692.
(7) Ibid., 710; Ibid., 692
(8) Ibid., 691.
(9) Didactic Panel for William Rimmer, The Falling Gladiator, Boston, Museum of Fine Arts, 8 March 2013
(10) Kirstein, “His Life and Art,” 692.
(12) Kent L. Brintnall, “Masochism, Masculinity and the Crucifixion: The Male-body-in-pain as Redemptive Figure,” diss., Emory University, Dissertation Abstracts International 68-08 (2007), accessed March 15, 2013, http://0-search.ebscohost.com.helin.uri.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aft&AN=70515250&site=ehost-live.
(13) Kent L. Brintnall, Ecce Homo: The Male-Body-In-Pain as Redemptive Figure (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), E-book [Kindle], 115-116.
(15) Ibid., 38-39.
(16) Ibid., 35-36.
(17) Wall Text, “Expressionism at Mid-Century,” Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 8 March 2013.
(18) Penny B. Bach, “Pennyslvania Railroad War Memorial (1950),” in Public Art in Philadelphia (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992), accessed March 15, 2013.
(19) Walker Hancock, “Interview with Walker Hancock, 1977 June 22-Aug. 15,” interview by Robert Brown, Smithsonian Institution: Archives of American Art, accessed March 15, 2013, http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-walker-hancock-13287.
(22) Didactic Panel for Karl Zerbe, Job, Boston, Museum of Fine Arts, 8 March 2013.
(24) Judith Bookbinder, “Teaching by Example,” in Boston Modern: Figurative Expressionism as Alternative Modernism (Lebanon, NH: University of New Hampshire Press, 2005), 190, accessed March 15, 2013, Google Books
(25) Brintnall, Ecce Homo, 115-116.
(26) Karen E. Quinn, “Female Corpse, Back View, Hyman Bloom,” Museum of Fine Arts Boston: Collection, accessed March 16, 2013, http://www.mfa.org/collections/object/female-corpse-back-view-35040.
(27) Brintnall, Ecce Homo, 115-116.