Reflections on Rudolf Nureyev’s Penis

Rudolf Nureyev By Jamie Wyeth
Rudolf Nureyev By Jamie Wyeth

I think I took my first life drawing class, drawing from  a nude model, when I was in high school.  I think, but I’m not sure if that’s true.  Anyway, it was either high school or my first year at Nassau Community College where I went right after high school.  Which ever it was I don’t remember being embarrassed by having this naked person in front of me that I was supposed to stare at so I could accurately draw them, but I do remember not being sure what to do when it came to the male models genitals.  It’s easy with the female models, a simple triangle will do.  But for the males, you have to decide how much detail you want to include.   I can remember not wanting to spend too much time staring at and drawing the males models genitals, but I also didn’t want to ignore it.  Because you’re drawing in a room with all the other students and the teacher walking around, I’ll admit, I didn’t want to appear to be too interested in the models penis, but I also didn’t want to appear to be a prude.

I was reminded of all this when Jon and I visited the Fine Arts Museum in Boston last week.  We walked into a large gallery with a bunch of portraits, most of them of Andy Warhol and Rudolf Nureyev.  And there was the same dilemma, as if I was back in my first life drawing class.  Amongst all the portraits was one of Nureyev from the top of his head to just above the knees, naked and glaringly well endowed.  So well endowed, it was impossible to ignore.   And a part of me is thinking that I don’t want to look at the picture too long because people (you know all those people who are watching to me to see how much time I spend looking at a painting, because they’re not here to look at art, but pass judgement on me) will think I’m just looking at Nureyev’s penis.  But I don’t want to not look at it because I don’t want those same judgmental people to think I’m a prude or disapproving.   And another part of me is thinking, don’t be a jerk Maria, its art, just look at it for the beauty and skill  blah blah blah….  But even with all that,  it’s still the elephant in the room.  And there’s no way that both Nureyev and Jamie Wyeth didn’t know that.

So as I’m standing there, looking and not looking, when Jon walks up next to me and with out a moment’s hesitation says, “He’s well hung isn’t he.”  I know I laughed and I could have kissed him, maybe I did kiss him.  Because, well, that’s just the truth of the and there it is.  I bet everyone who looked at that drawing  thought the same thing, how could they not, I know I did.   But Jon said it out loud.  What a relief, with those magic words, I felt like the spell had been broken.  I could now look or not look at that painting and it didn’t matter how much or little time I spent doing it.

I like to believe I’m mature and professional when it comes to art and nudes. And I’m not rattled by so much of the art that came out in the 60’s and 70’s and 80’s that dealt directly with sexuality and sex.  I guess I just didn’t expect this painting, thrown in with the presidential portraits, landscapes and hay bales.  But I’m also not likely to forget it. And it truly is a beautiful painting of a beautiful man no matter how large or small his penis is.  But it’s also a very honest painting. Even fully dressed Nureyev exudes sexuality, it’s a big part of who he was.  And this painting reflects that, not just by the size of his penis, but by his posture and expression and the way it’s painted.

I was surprised to find that, more than 30 years later, and after many life drawing classes, I still have some of those same feelings that I had in my first life drawing class.  Embarrassed and concerned about what other people might think of me when it comes to the human body.  But I also don’t think it’s who I really am and how I really feel.  I think it’s about the stuff I was taught and the way I learned to feel about my own body.  Hopefully, before another 30 years pass, I’ll be able to stand in front of any picture anywhere and not care what someone else might or might not be thinking.  And say out loud what ever I might be feeling.  Who knows, maybe someday, I’ll even find myself stitching nude men on my pillows and wallhangings.

20 thoughts on “Reflections on Rudolf Nureyev’s Penis

  1. “[I]t’s about the stuff I was taught” — so, so true, for all of us, about so many, many things. My 2015 New Year’s resolution is to make myself ask “Says who?” about . . .well, just about everything.

  2. Just wanted to thank you for sharing that. I had to laugh when you said Jon walked right up and made the comment on the penis. I don’t know what I would have done, to stare or not to stare, but it was truly enjoyable to share in your dilemma.

  3. Enjoyed your experience with the nude Maria. I remember my first experience with a nude in art class. The model was a well endowed woman. I wasn’t too uncomfortable with the assignment but the young man next to me couldn’t hold on to his pencil. He was afraid to look at her. It was rather funny at the time.
    I am enjoying very much your progress on the dinning room mural.

    1. That’s funny JoAnne, not to him I’m sure. We had one model who got excited while posing. The art teacher later called him “unprofessional” and wouldn’t use him again.

  4. Maria, Perhaps because of my lack of creativity, my first reaction to this picture was to wonder if Nureyev’s genitals had been “enhanced” by the painter (with/without Nureyev’s consent?). Could that not be possible? Seems to me an “enhancement” would certainly draw all attention to that particular place, even the placement of Nureyev’s hands draws the attention of the observer there–another reason I see “evidence” of artistic enhancement. Is this not somewhat the same reasoning as a woman who gets a “boob job”: Enhance what you want to get the attention and what our society seems to consider valuable and important. Approached that way, it seems to me to be simply “good business”. MCS

    1. It’s easy to think that Mary, but there are lots of nude photographs of Nureyev and this painting is accurate. Yes, I’ve thought the same thing.

      1. Actually it was enhanced, albeit naturally. Nureev appeared nude in a film where he was, let’s say, less excited.

  5. love your penis potholders. . . .such a funny combination of things! have never seen the painting of Nureyev. . . what a beautiful man! reading your inner monologue about the reaction of others (as you looked at him), I felt you were in my brain. . .what a waste of time wondering what others think. . .you go girl!

  6. Gosh Maria — it makes me wonder how he ever stuffed all that into his “whatever” under his leotard!

  7. Maria,

    I enjoyed your reaction to the portrait and your memory of living drawing class.

    When I took life drawing in college, I didn’t know what to do with the male genitals, so totally left them out. The instructor came by and said, “You need to see more.”

    That was fifty years ago, but you brought back those memories for me.


  8. The only reason I stare at a penis is because they are so rarely seen in art of any kind compared to the naked female form its a shock to encounter one. The penis is so elusive in movies that my friends and I make a count every year of how many we see in regular movies (no porn). Sadly we see about 2 penis to about 30 full frontal female.

    1. It’s so true though about female nudity compared to male nudity in movies. I’m going to pay more attention too. There’s something to it all isn’t there?

  9. I remember my first art class with a model coming on the first day. We were all so nervous but the model was so uninterested in us, just doing it for the money, that we all settled down. He was so comfortable that during his break he walked around nude looking at our drawings. I wasn’t very good at drawing but I learned a lot in that class using simple lines to form the body. I have found, living in France, that Americans are very prudish in a bone deep way. I guess it was taught to us. All I know is that I can’t get rid of it. My first X-ray here was without a gown-they just didn’t have any. I was so traumatised. I was told afterwards that they needed to see landmarks but I crabbily replied, “Well, they can do it in America with a gown on a patient!” I don’t go topless on beaches either-never will.

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