Masculinities, Barbican review: an impeccably woke exercise in sticking it to the man

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AFGHANISTAN. Kandahar. 2002. Taliban portrait by Thomas Dworzak
Detail from AFGHANISTAN. Kandahar. 2002. Taliban portrait by Thomas Dworzak, on show at the Barbican in Masculinities Credit: Magnum Photos

While the battle of the sexes has been rumbling on forever, recently the conflict has intensified – to the brink of nuclear Armageddon. Traditional masculinity is now considered so destructive, so “toxic”, that an entire gender is, arguably, in crisis. At the same time, it’s more fragile and brittle than ever, as the rising male suicide rate suggests.

Onto this battlefield steps Masculinities: Liberation through Photography, a massive new exhibition at the Barbican Art Gallery, featuring more than 50 photographers and filmmakers working from the Sixties to today. As a proposition, then, it feels timely. It is also – you guessed it – impeccably woke: an exercise in sticking it, as it were, to the man.

The catalogue, for instance, is written in the zealous, impenetrable mandarin preferred by gender-studies academics for whom historically powerful heterosexual white men are cardboard-cut-out villains. Indeed, its language is so opaque that it requires a patronising glossary explaining the meaning of fibrous mouthfuls such as “cisgender”, “heteronormativity”, and “hegemonic masculinity”. Some of these terms, unfortunately, creep into the exhibition’s labels, too.

Yet, if you are willing to scratch beneath this linguistic creosote, there is much to recommend the Barbican’s show, which is full of strong and thought-provoking work. While the catalogue may be po-faced, the exhibition thankfully finds room for plenty of tender and playful moments. I was especially touched by Masahisa Fukase’s series lovingly documenting, over a decade and a half, his father in old age and death.

A photograph by Masahisa Fukase from the series Family, 1971-90 Credit: TOMO KOSUGA /© Masahisa Fukase Archives

The opening sets the tone. Four imposing black-and-white photographs record artist John Coplans’s ageing frame, laying bare his “moobs”, flabby folds and creases, wiry black body hair, and ballooning gut. This, we quickly realise, isn’t going to be a show celebrating the classical ideal of Apollonian male youth. Don’t expect macho alpha males in the mould of Russell Crowe in “Gladiator”, either.

Rather, the men in the Barbican’s exhibition are mostly marginalised and vulnerable. Some cry, as in Bas Jan Ader’s 1971 film “I’m Too Sad to Tell You”. One even wets himself, in Norwegian filmmaker Knut Åsdam’s silent video of a shameful damp patch gradually spreading across a close-up of a crotch. Here, a label informs us, is an instance of “leaky” masculinity.

Lots of masculine archetypes are invoked – cowboys, bodybuilders, soldiers, athletes – only to be “disrupted” or knocked down. Early on, for instance, we encounter a surprising set of portraits from photographic studios in Afghanistan featuring Taliban fighters, their eyes heavily made up with black kohl, holding hands.

David Brintzenhofe Applying Makeup (II), 1982 by Peter Hujar Credit: Chicago Albumen Works /© 1987 The Peter Hujar Archive LLC; Courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York and Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

Later, we come across Dutch photographer Rineke Dijkstra’s memorable series of blood-spattered Portuguese bullfighters. Fresh from the arena, their pink brocade jackets torn and ties askew, they appear exhausted, haunted – anything but heroic. The clash between conventionally “manly” appearance and complex inner psychology is a central theme of the show.

Aside from Coplans’s frank, forensic self-portraiture, and a few full-frontal shots, there isn’t much nudity; surprisingly, perhaps, the curators only find room for a handful of works by Robert Mapplethorpe. There are, though, plenty of amusing photographs of groups of men urinating, as well as, throughout, abundant facial hair, and a clever finale featuring caustic work about men by women.

Overall, then, the emphasis is on gender, not sexuality. Masculinity, here, is something to be performed, as an actor dons a mask. You may disagree that gender is a sociocultural construct. But this, surely, is a fundamental, and uncontroversial, truth: that we all, depending on the situation, continually modify the way we present ourselves to the world. I only wish that the exhibition didn’t give straight, white men such a telling-off.

From Thurs; barbican.org.uk