The Art of John Waiblinger:
Fauns in the Paradise Garden
Review by Prof. Gregory Mattson
John Waiblinger’s body of work is a fascinating exploration of masculine beauty, challenging traditional portrayals of nude men with clear nods to ancient sacred arts. Drawing from pornography, Waiblinger takes photographs of handsome, athletic young men and digitally manipulates them. He layers photos of branches and flowers onto these shots to create unique and vibrant images. It is difficult to look at his work and not be struck by the sense of yearning that is typically associated with religious art. In perusing his body of work, it would be understandable for cult images of the Greco-Roman world and icons of the Medieval Church to come to mind. Much like these historical forms of art, Waiblinger’s work utilizes the human body to invoke a sense of transcendent wonder and adoration.
One of the most salient characteristics of Waiblinger’s pieces is their Classical beauty. The images of men typically have bodies and faces that are echoes of Ancient Greek images of youthful gods and heroes. Nude male bodies intermingle with rich flora, rain droplets and other natural imagery. One gets the impression that the bodies of the models are inextricably connected by vines and blossoms to the bounty of the natural world. While our Neo-Classical cannon incorporates countless female nudes and odalisques adorned with lilies and roses, seeing strong, muscular male bodies amidst these traditionally feminine “accessories” adds freshness to the compositions. The merging of male bodies with nature additionally undermines traditional masculine roles. Free from cultural artifacts, the nude males are placed squarely in the traditionally feminine realm of “nature” instead of virile “culture” or “civilization.”
The emphasis in Waiblinger’s art on harmony of color and form and the beauty of the male body make it a clear inheritor of a Greco-Roman sensibility. In the Classical period, Ancient Greeks portrayed the gods as idealized humans, perfect in balance and proportion. After all, as the lyric poet Pindar famously stated, “single is the race, single of men and of gods.” The fundamental difference between us was the exponentially greater power of the Immortals. Quite sensibly, the gods were portrayed, with few exceptions, as supremely beautiful humans. Looking at John Waiblinger’s collection of work we can see the kind of Pygmalion-like infatuation he has with the men featured in his art. In more ways than one, we can see his work as a continuation of a Hellenic artistic tradition which saw the capacity of human beauty to elevate and enrapture.
Early Christian art broke dramatically from the art of pre-Christian Greeks and Romans. While icons portrayed the bodies of Christ and the Saints, their figures were markedly different than that of the gods. Figures were portrayed in a heavily stylized manner, with rigid, formulaic poses. Natural landscapes were eschewed for mystical golden backgrounds. It is immediately apparent when looking at a Byzantine icon that the action is taking place in Heaven or a supernatural setting. These figures are clearly distinct from human bodies in ordinary time and as such are instantly recognizable as icons. Portraying people in such a way assisted in transporting the mind of the faithful to the divine, which, to the intended viewer, was outside nature.
The Ancient Greeks saw the landscape as numinous: infused with the sacred. Each grotto, brook and clearing had its attendant nymph or minor deity. John Waiblinger’s work seems to share this perspective. However, it also features elements of the transcendent divine found in Christian icons. While the original images of the men are, of course, photographs, they are edited and cropped to create a direct perspective on the figure. Our eyes are drawn to focus closely on the models’ faces and bodies. It is as if the artist has taken these young gods from their temples and given us a picture window to their sculpted bodies. This framing gives them an immediacy that is a hallmark of icons: these men/saints demand your attention as objects of adoration and, possibly, veneration.
Viewing Waiblinger’s work, one is transported by a vision which seems to suggest that the divine is imminent, present in these beautiful fauns amidst boughs of flowers. Yet, while the foliage and vines are clearly beautiful emblems of nature, they also create a screen between the viewer and the male nudes, not unlike a cloister grille separating the religious from the secular. Their bodies are visible, but not for the hand to touch. Perhaps, rather than denizens of an Earthly garden, these fauns are really beautiful male houris in the Gardens of Paradise: simultaneously lush but inaccessible. These figures are eminently desirable, but ambiguous, existing at the fulcrum between the imminent and the transcendent, terrestrial Paganism and celestial Christianity, longing and the remoteness of the object of our desire.
Prof. Gregory Mattson