Martin Myrone’s beautifully illustrated book provides a new and convincing analysis of the shifting ideals of masculinity in mid eighteenth- to early nineteenth-century British art, primarily painting and printmaking. Its simultaneously theoretical, aesthetic, and historical framework make it an enlightening interdisciplinary read for students and scholars of art history, cultural studies, gender theory, and literature alike. Although the book’s clever title, Body Building, is well suited to its cover image of the impressively chiseled torso of Henry Fuseli’s Thor (1790), a more accurate title might have been Body Demolishing, since Myrone documents not the building up but the breaking down of the ideal British male body from the Classically inspired ideal of the physically buff and historically significant (and often nude) male hero to the physically and historically slighter (and more modestly clothed), sentimental modern male ideal more befitting the norms of the new bourgeois culture. By the 1790s, Myrone shows, unironic images of robust Classical male heroism like Fuseli’s were the rare and anachronistic exceptions to the new aesthetic rule by which the disembodied and dehistoricized sentimental masculinity of Henry MacKenzie’s Man of Feeling was far better suited to the new bourgeois culture with its commitments to realism and domesticity in place of the old values of idealism and military heroism. In Myrone’s analysis, this explains why Fuseli presented his heroic painting of Thor Battering the Midgard Serpent to, of all places, the Royal Society: by 1790 the value of a well-defined male nude was scientific, not aesthetic.
Myrone’s fleshing out (as it were) of this argument is organized chronologically into four parts, Part One focusing on the work of Gavin Hamilton, James Barry, and other prominent representers of male bodies within the period 1755-65. Part Two takes on the years between 1765 and 75 and the art of John Hamilton Mortimer. Part Three discusses the following decade (1775-85), with its modernly anti-heroic masculine images of the American War, Gothic Romance, Quixotic Heroism, and perhaps most surprisingly and interestingly, the collection and display of now-outmoded male nudes for anatomical purposes at the Royal Academy. Part Four concludes the book where its cover begins, with the anachronistically heroic male nudes painted, printed, and drawn by counter-cultural rebels Fuseli and William Blake. Each of the book’s four sections narrates the gradual movement away from Neoclassicism towards a more realistic modern aesthetic characterized by Hogarth’s “Analysis of Beauty,” paraphrased here by Myrone as professing that “the highest aesthetic pleasure was to be derived from the representation of normal life, as famously expressed in his advocating a preference for the flesh of ‘living women’ over the chilly idealism of the ‘Grecian Venus’” (8)—or its paradigmatic male counterpart, Michelangelo’s David.
Perhaps the book’s finest achievement is its detailed readings of individual works of art that contain, in their single self-contradictory wholes, both sides of the dialectical tension between pro-ancient (as exemplified by the soon-to-be-outdated “Grand Manner”) and pro-modern modes of masculinity. Such self contradiction, in Myrone’s analysis, runs throughout the conflicted genres of modern historical painting (such as Benjamin West’s 1770 Death of General Wolf, which depicts a fallen modern general in a mix of classical and modern modes but is ultimately and quintessentially modern), modern paintings of mythological figures (such as James Barry’s representation of the fallen Hercules, and the simultaneously backward and forward-reaching male images of Gavin Hamilton’s famous images of The Iliad), and the mixed messages of “The Grand Tour,” “a site in which elite forms of masculinity were made and unmade in dramatic ways” (58). Myrone’s subject matter becomes ideologically simpler—but his analysis no less enlightening—when he reaches the 1780s, by which point the mid century’s anxiety-ridden conflict between concurrent old and new modes of British masculinity had been replaced, for better or for worse, by a better established and more ideologically consistent culture industry in which anti-heroic images such as John Singleton Copley’s Watson and the Shark (1778) “mark the abandonment of the epic mode in art—its associations with conquest and violence now distasteful to what was being defined as a cultured modern public” (218).
Body Building’s final chapter takes on the most obvious exception to Myrone’s rule, Blake’s heroic and virile male nudes, characterized here by Myrone not as groundbreakingly sublime but as beautiful failures, not so much ahead of their time (as Blake saw both his work and himself) as behind it. Myrone quotes a famous negative review of Blake’s first public exhibition in 1809 as proof of the old Classical heroic male ideal’s cultural irrelevance. In Myrone’s estimation, Fuseli and Blake’s
pursuit of dramatic, heroic idealism was damned and abandoned materially. In place of a socially engaged form of narrative art, which would have required more concerted symbolic and material support from the dominant classes, a step was taken towards allowing bourgeois complacency to shape the cultural field and the forms of masculinity that it helped sustain. . . The heroic conceptions of the artist and the artistic conception of the heroic were cast as equally, hopelessly romantic. 
So if Blake and Fuseli were the clear losers of the Masculinity Culture Wars, the winner, for Myrone, was the so-called “British School,” the early nineteenth-century aesthetic movement that was staked not on the hierarchy of the genres and the supremacy of epic and heroic narrative and form—a hierarchy closely related to conventional gender distinctions—but on an analogy between visual form and a social polity that licensed a degree of variety . . . The dehistoricizing rationale that emerged in discourse on the ‘British School’ and that helped shape modern masculinity was the sanctioning of the individual and the stigmatization of the individualism that could offer even symbolic resistance to capitalism. . . A fundamentally complacent form of bourgeois social dominance triumphed that required neither moral virtues nor historical exemplars to manage the gender differences and economic inequalities that sustained it.” (312-13) And thus ends Myrone’s compelling (and convincing) account of how bourgeois complacency beat brute macho strength in the British art world. But what if Myrone were to have concluded his story in the twentieth century instead of the nineteenth? If so, this reviewer needlessly speculates, he might have found himself narrating an eventual (and perhaps surprising) aesthetic truce between the two disparate male ideals that form the crux of his argument in Body Building, a truce reached not in the world of fine art but in the advertising campaign of twentieth-century body builder Charles Atlas, the entrepreneur single-handedly responsible for synthesizing—and profiting from—the old classical heroic male body and the realistic everyman of bourgeois capitalist individualism. No longer a threat to capitalism (as in the demi-gods of Blake and Fuseli) but a symptom of it, Atlas’s buff male semi-nude body builders are the self-made bourgeois individual and Hercules rolled up in one. To quote one such ad from the 1940s: “What’s my job? –I Manufacture Weaklings into Men!”—a new kind of human manufacturing unimaginable to Blake (but arguably foreshadowed by Karl Marx): the post-industrial “body building” industry of today.
Myrone, Martin. Body Building: Reforming Masculinities in British Art, 1750-1810. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005.
Last modified 20 November 2011