Hello, I'm Colin and I’m one of the guides on the Bridging Binaries LGBT+ tours at the Museum of Classical Archaeology.
And I’ m going to talk about The Wrestlers as its a statue that, for me, highlights the importance of classical statuary for queer men over the last few centuries.
As you may have noticed, nudity and physical excellence are the hallmarks of classical statuary. The physical attributes were often used as a metaphor for the non-physical qualities of an individual. For example, a strong body might convey that the subject was a strong leader. And the statues are naked so that we can fully appreciate these physical qualities.
Now The Wrestlers were athletes so we just need to see – and by impressed by - how fit they were.
But there’s a particularly homoerotic charge with these fit young men because they’re not just naked, they’re engaged in some kind of active, intimate, physical behaviour. And, to the queer eye, that intimate physicality gives rise to fantasy. We can almost hear the sounds that they’re making, feel the heat that their bodies are generating, smell the sweat. And from certain angles we’re almost close enough to be participants.
Now this may sound like I’m getting a bit carried away. But consider this.
Up until 1861, the penalty for male homosexual behaviour was death by hanging. For decades after that it was imprisonment with hard labour. Even when homosexuality was officially decriminalised in 1967, the legislation came with so many terms and conditions, that the number of homosexual men sent to jail actually went up for the first few years afterwards.
So gay men needed to be extremely careful. Which brings us back to classical statuary.
For many men, statues of naked men offered an opportunity to fantasise - and may even have been as close as they got to a homosexual encounter. We can actually see evidence of this in a short story by closetted Edwardian author E.M.Forster.
‘The Classical Annexe', is a sexual fantasy based on The Wrestlers. In it, the statue of an athlete comes to life and displays a strong – and very obvious - sexual appetite. The story ends with the athlete returning to stone – along with a young man with whom he is ‘wrestling’.
And now that we have the internet, it’s not hard to find examples of other works that are clearly influenced by statues like The Wrestlers, such as the works of 1950s photographer Bob Mizer.