Puttin’ on the Ritts: Ideal Portrayals of Masculinity and Male Beauty

This is the first installment of a series we are trying at the Female Gaze where we revisit the first essays related to Art History that we wrote. I originally came to Wellesley thinking I would be a Political Science and Middle Eastern Studies double major, but took Writing in Art History for my first-year writing course. For our first paper we were tasked with comparing an ancient Egyptian statue to a relatively contemporary photograph. See what the two have in common below.

Although presented in different mediums, both the Colossal Statue of Menkaure (2490-2472 BCE, accession no. 465) and Herb Ritts’ photograph Matthew McConaughey (Palmdale, 1996) strive to portray their subjects in an idealized form. The statue of the pharaoh Menkaure exudes power, influence, stability, and regality. Through the use of triangular shapes and defined horizontal lines, the statue has a strength about it which parallels that of the king himself. At the same time, these qualities make the portrait of the pharaoh seem distant from the viewer. Herb Ritts’ photograph portrays his subject as seductive, powerful, strong, and comfortable. Curving lines and spherical shapes give the photograph a relaxed quality, making the subject seem approachable, rather than high and mighty. The two works paint their subjects in varying lights, yet they both achieve the same goal of the idealized image of a sought after, powerful persona.

The Colossal Statue of Menkaure is as the name suggests, colossal. Towering over the average museum-goer, the alabaster statue of the seated Menkaure is approximately six feet and six inches tall. His intimidating, larger-than-life size takes him out of the realm of the ordinary, making him otherworldly. In Ancient Egypt he was just that. As pharaoh, he was no ordinary human being, but rather a combination of man and the divine. The statue of Menkaure is rife with the iconography of kingship to reinforce his position during his lifetime. Atop Menkaure’s 8f8fdbb46186bc8ddfc6627eba8d8b2ehead rests the nemes headdress, with small grooves where the real linen would have wrinkled on his shoulders. Another common characteristic of the nemes is the existence of a cobra head, or uraeus in the center. The cobra gave the pharaoh divine protection. Although Menkaure seems to be missing the uraeus, a cobra’s tail runs down the back of his head, providing evidence that the cobra head must have broken off. In addition to the nemes, a false, ceremonial beard rests on Menkaure’s alert face. The pharaoh also wears a linen, pleated kilt that falls just above his realistically carved knee. In his right hand he holds a folded cloth, a symbol of power comparable to the emblematic staves. Lastly, the hieroglyphic letters on the base of the throne spell out both palace and Menkaure’s name, reinforcing his status as king and marking the completion of his funerary statue.

The sculptor of the Colossal Statue of Menkaure succeeded in synthesizing naturalistic and abstract qualities with an idealized image as the resulting product. The sculptor’s idealization of his subject takes Menkaure out of the realm of man, and transports him into the realm of the divine. Menkaure has a smooth, rounded, blemish free face. The portrayal of youthful perfection was common in Old Kingdom sculptures of pharaohs, thus Menkaure resembles other statues of his time. His similarity to both his predecessors and successors accents his romanticized appearance, and his facial perfection rivals the flawlessness of the gods. In addition, the way the trapezoidal nemes frames Menkaure’s face highlights the contrasting softer, curving lines of his ears, lips, nose and jawline. In addition, the sharp lines of the nemes juxtapose Menkaure’s bulging, almond-shaped eyes. One can imagine the eyes as being a focal point of the sculpture had it retained its paint after the excavation. By placing an emphasis on his gaze which looks past the viewer, the sculptor again elevates Menkaure into the realm of the divine. Menkaure is unconcerned with his audience, making him appear intimidating and significant, while making the viewer feel small and insignificant.

Travelling down the statue, the pharaoh’s shoulders are broad and strong, outlining a triangular torso. His shoulders are sculpted with horizontal lines, while diagonals outline the sides of Menkaure’s torso. The combination of the horizontal and diagonal lines, culminating in the triangular torso, accents his strength and power, although it represents an idealized form of his body. No ordinary human being could achieve his proportions. In addition, the statue’s body language suggests rigidity, sturdiness, and soundness. He is predominantly made of horizontal and vertical lines. His recti linearity gives him a motionless air. Looking at the statue, the viewer gets the feeling that he is meant to be frozen in time and perfection. The few curved lines on his upper body provide some interior definition. They accentuate his toned pectorals and abdomens. Moreover, the curved lines of his legs bring attention to his protruding calf muscles. Overall, Menkaure’s body language creates a tense and stable sentiment, flaunting his authoritative, confident nature. However, his left hand remains unclutched which suggests a moment of respite and relaxation. Although the sculptor of the Colossal Statue of Menkaure constructed the likeness of his king around 2599-2571 BCE, his admiration and concern for his pharaoh’s eternal well-being transcends time; his statue is truly fit for a king.

Herb Ritts’ photograph, Matthew McConaughy, serves the same purpose as the statue of Menkaure; it portrays an idealized image of the powerful, young actor. However, the two derive their power from different sources. Mekaure’s strength comes from politics and the divine, while McConaughy’s power comes from his confidence, and from within. In the photograph, McConaughy is seen reclining in the front seat of a car, exercising a calm and relaxed aura. He rests one arm up on the car seat, and the other on the edge of the leather seat. His legs are more out of matthew-mcconaughey-palmdale-1996-webfocus than the rest of the portrait emphasizing his torso and head. At the base of his torso, McConaughy wears a large, decorated belt buckle. The sun shines on the buckle drawing more attention to it and McConaughy’s more masculine region. In addition, the diagonal lines created from his elevated arm and the steering wheel intersect just below the buckle, highlighting that region once more. The dark vertical line between his sculpted abdomen and pectorals draws the viewer’s gaze up to McConaughy’s head and eyes, the real focal points of the work.

McConaughy’s head is suspended in a light grey background. The vertical and horizontal lines of the car window behind, act as a frame for McConaughy’s head, which is in the center. Although his belt buckle had ornamentation to catch the viewer’s eye, McConaughy’s tousled, curly hair has the most amount of texture in the work. The way the sunlight dances on top of his head also calls attention to his head. His monochrome face has a still expression. There is little movement in the lips or nose; rather the eyes communicate McConaughy’s inner power. His bedroom eyes sparkle, and draw the viewer in with a confident, approachable gaze. This accentuates the intimate feeling of the work as the viewer feels a connection with the actor. Unlike Menakure, McConaughy is engaging the viewer rather than looking past, creating a personable and approachable atmosphere. Moreover, he exudes sensuality, power, inner strength, and a sense that he is in control of the situation. Rather than shying away from the situation, he sits confidently.

The angular and rectilinear lines in the statue of Menkaure give the work firmness. In contrast, Ritts’ photograph has countless curved lines giving the work a softer atmosphere. In addition, the choice of black and white imaging allows the background to take a backseat, bringing McConaughy to the forefront of the work. While Menkaure’s body language reinforced that sense of stability, McConaughy’s pose exudes sensuality, power, inner strength, and control of his situation. Rather than shying away from the photograph, he sits confidently. He knows that as a Hollywood celebrity, society has formed an image of him as a definition of sex appeal. He exudes sensuality, and Ritts took great care in drawing attention to his lower torso and powerful gaze to stress this idealized side of McConaughy. A photograph, like a statue, is a means of immortalizing the subject, and capturing them in a state of perfection. Ritts created the lasting memory of McConaughy as an object of desire. However, the celebrity is approachable so he does not seem as far out of reach as the pharaoh Menkaure.

Although the statue of Menkaure and the photograph of Matthew McConaughy are works in different mediums and time periods, each artist succeeded in capturing the idealized public persona of their subject. Menkaure’s body is idealized and his face proves similar to those of his predecessors and followers, suggesting an ideal expression. McConaughy’s relaxed, come hither portrait, ties in with the idealized confident persona of an up and coming actor. The artists have captured how their subjects want to be seen, but not who they are. Therefore, centuries apart, the artists are still in the same business of working with powerful people to display their romanticized state of being.

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