Michael Phelps is the new Belvedere Torso.
I’ve been saying this for the past four years, but this month’s GQ officially confirms the intuition I’ve had since that 2004 Vanity Fair Bruce Weber shoot. (I love Bruce Weber).
The Belvedere Torso, a fragmented male nude sculpted in the age of Ancient Greece, inspired artists for centuries. Not only was it held as an image of the ideal masculine physique, but it was also the model for bodies in the Last Judgment of Michaelanglo’s Sistine Chapel and continues to be copied by artists, in all media, up to the present day. Google it and you’ll find thousands of 19th engravings that are either pure copies of or are images inspired by the Belvedere Torso (I’m also fairly certain several plates in Goya’s “Disasters of War” are modeled on the Torso… morbid, but Goya was an artist who loved his art history).
And now we have uber-Olympian Michael Phelps. There are so many levels on which this comparison between an Olympian and a Grecian sculpture works, so I’ll leave most of them for you to ponder while I gush over this particular photograph and why it’s so interesting to us art history nerds.
To me, the true beauty of Mark Selgier’s image (above (c) GQ) lies in its reference to the classical masterpiece — an image of marble-white torso caught in action, twisting to reveal his divine musculature. I should mention that the Belvedere torso is thought to be a representation of the demi-God Hercules. And let’s face it, Phelps has become the modern version of a demi-God, both for his athletic prowess and for his A-list celebrity status.
So many photos of Phelps are images of pure sex (check out the GQ cover and the water shot from the same issue). Yet while the composition of this photograph does ultimately draw our attention to Phelps’ “manhood,” we don’t look at the image and think nights between satin sheets with an Olympic stud-muffin. We see an athlete and an ideal masculine body — which is pretty sexy, but is also breathtakingly beautiful in a very chaste sort of way.