By David L. Chapman with Douglas Brown
Arsenal Pulp Press, Vancouver
by MARITES N. SISON
I finally get Vladimir Putin and his bare chest. Until Universal Hunks, I had boiled down Putin’s beefcake poses to narcissism and a desperate attempt to hang on to a machismo that is withering with time.
But the body, in particular the male physique, has, historically, “factored prominently in the construction of modern national identities,” writes cultural and sports historian, Douglas Brown, in his introduction to Universal Hunks. “The healthy body existed on a literal and abstract level; it was evidence of individual responsibility and of a body politic, an emblem of collective and communal strength and well-being.”
At the height of colonialism, imperial powers drew on “physical culture” to support their expansionism abroad, adds Brown. “The white man’s muscular, honed body revealed both his physical and mental ‘superiority.’”
Male beauty and physical strength were key to the propagation of Hitler’s myth of the German super-race, Brown reminds us, and were similarly crucial to the ideals of fascism in Mussolini’s Italy and of communism in the Soviet Union.
In Africa and Asia, muscular male bodies were associated with modern notions of nationalism, writes Brown. Kushti, an ancient form of wrestling, became popular and “brought about a new sense of national pride in post-colonial India.” Introduced in northern India by the Mongols, it is still practiced today.
The historical and cultural contexts that cultivated muscular male physiques around the world are, at least for me, the biggest takeaway from Universal Hunks. It is a smart and sexy book (one can almost hear Right Said Fred’s 1990s hit “I’m Too Sexy” with every flip of a page). I have never been a big fan of rippling muscles and in fact, consider them to be rather grotesque. But I had found the book’s cover of a bare-chested young Asian man as an embodiment of “the universal hunk” intriguing enough to actually read it. [He turns out to be a teenager from Cebu City, Philippines. Bernardino Ouano was the captain of his high school basketball team when the photograph was taken in July 1924.)
The follow-up to David Chapman’s American Hunks, Universal Hunks includes homoerotic, sensual as well as straightforward photographs, vintage posters, magazine and book covers, advertisements and product packaging of muscled men from over 70 countries in all seven continents. They are part of Chapman’s personal collection of historical images from numerous travels overseas. At a young age, writes Chapman, he had discovered that he rather enjoyed looking at photographs of bare-chested tribesmen in the National Geographic more than striking poses of topless women.
One is not gripped with a sense of being voyeuristic when looking at the images of muscled men at the prime of their youth, circa 1895 to 1975. Sure, there are images that are just downright seductive, regardless of one’s bent, and serve no other purpose than to flaunt one’s sexuality. One stands out in particular, that of Japanese avant-garde playwright and novelist Yukio Mishima, who is dressed only in a traditional Japanese loincloth and poses with “one hand on his hip and one hand holding a sword.” But photographs like Mishima’s are not splashed there without context. Mishima, it turns out, was barely five feet tall, but he pursued bodybuilding with a passion, so fixated was he with the ideals of Japanese masculinity and the idea of being a modern-day Samurai.
In all, Universal Hunks is a celebration of male beauty and an affirmation of the universal truth that no race has a monopoly of hunks.