On Being Your Own Man

© All images by Luis Venegas

Years ago, an elderly gentleman came up to me after a reading and told me that he knew me. He’d once slept in my parents’ room for a night, he said. I was about to give him a terse reply when he quickly followed up with a comment on how friendly they had been. They had even served him breakfast so he could get to work rested and in a positive frame of mind—to be a model at the Leipzig trade show. A model, in our rundown but quaint apartment in the east of Leipzig? The past is full of surprises.

I had no idea that, in the early 1970s, my parents earned a little extra cash by renting out their room to trade show visitors—and certainly not to male models. It didn’t fit at all with the skepticism around male beauty that I’d grown up with. It was a friendly kind of skepticism but still quite fundamental, and frequently it came out in casual remarks. Time and again we would discuss important, life-changing matters over supper (marriage, socialism, careers, gardening, men and women, and generally putting the world to rights), but the subject of male beauty would at most be touched on in passing while we were talking about something else. I expect things were pretty similar in most German families at the time. After all, a good-looking man is almost always a provocation in the face of dominant ideas of masculinity.

My mother had no problems with male beauty. She loved to see Gérard Philipe and Alain Delon on the silver screen. But in real life she was mistrustful of smooth, overly confident charmers, and my father would respond with no more than a smile that suggested, it’s nothing to do with me. But maybe my memory is playing tricks on me. After all, it wasn’t until I met this well-groomed elderly gentleman that I realized we had a model to stay—an East German one at that. “It’s true. But he didn’t stay for long,” my mother replied when I asked.

Male beauty plays such an important role in my brother’s paintings. Usually, on first sight, people overlook how the works are made and what they are actually about. Their beauty is of a luxurious kind that seems self-satisfied but often makes the young men depicted appear helpless, almost superfluous. To me, they often look as though they have not yet found their place in the world. But, in the world I grew up in, finding your place was exactly what was expected: a man had to fulfill his role with self-assurance and remain unerring, come what may. His job was quite simply to be his own man. Nowadays, East German men are often talked about as caricatures that roam the public realm. Unfortunately, only a very small minority of people are affected by the fact that the fantastic twins Bill and Tom Kaulitz are also East German men, born in Leipzig, who lived through the crises after 1989 like tens of thousands of others. The stereotypical East German man cultivates his hurt feelings, which he keeps firmly under a (somewhat strange-looking) hat in the colors of the German national flag. He is petulant toward others and sets his inner block leader in motion. East Germany was full of people like that, of course, as was West Germany, no doubt. But the ideals of masculinity I was brought up with were diametrically opposed to the “hat wearer,” who would have been judged as indulging in his moods and personal sensitivities far too much and likely be told to just pull himself together.

I don’t know if it was the same everywhere, but in East Germany there was a coexistence of various milieus. Ideas of masculinity are probably formed primarily within the family unit. Ideologies and movies have an influence too, no doubt, as do role models and teachers, but even they have to make it through the family filter. In our house, rather than the question of “gender relations” as it’s called nowadays, manliness was considered desirable. My father thought it essential for a man to be able to do everything, from cooking and cleaning to ironing and shopping. You have to darn your own socks, he would say. Women, he said, are the beauty in life; they’re not there to darn socks and sew on buttons. It was up to men to take pleasure in spoiling them. And, he would add, the remit of men was to be generous and indulgent. In kindergarten, we learned a song that went something like this:

“When Mom goes to work in the mornings / I stay at home. / I put on my apron / And sweep out the room. // I cannot cook lunch yet, / I’m too small for that. / But I often do dusting / And Mom will love that.”

Although my father preferred to spend his time singing sea shanties, in the 1970s and ’80s what little housework there was would be shared. Rather than a battleground of the sexes, the kitchen was a playground for our various talents.

A man’s honorable duty was to do all the handiwork. Outside of the world of work and careers, DIY was the domain in which he had to prove himself. But in East Germany that could be quite challenging: in an economy of scarcity, tools and materials were hard to come by. The historian Götz Aly once referred to East Germany as the first do-it-yourself dictatorship on German territory—even without DIY shops. This situation added an aspect of everyday survival skills to the definition of manliness. Improvisation and tinkering were highly respected. Over a beer men would talk about hammering and sawing, cement, drills, and start buttons more than they did about work and almost as much as they did about soccer.

They would often talk about the National People’s Army as well, in which all East German men had to serve and endure systematic humiliation. Sometimes they would put a positive spin on things: it toughens you up, makes a real man of you. But military instilled toughness was incompatible with the image of the confident, thriftless, proud man who is playfully generous. The main thing the National People’s Army taught you was to keep a low profile, hoodwink, be idle, and make a show of assiduity at just the right moment. You learned fear and its counterpart, bragging. In this regard, my brother really did fulfill the ideals of masculinity: at the very first opportunity he made a run for it and became a deserter. I’ve always admired him for that and find traces of it in his paintings. Saying “no” at the right moment had, in principle, always been a part of the Bisky family’s vision of masculinity—and that was what he did, in the midst of the revolutionary uncertainties of 1990.

In all probability—at least, this is the way I like to look at it—this was why he was able to hold and draw on an alternative vision of manliness, a vision of innocence that is perhaps best understood by spending a few minutes in front of Aleksandr Deyneka’s painting Future Pilots, from 1938, at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. (I’m not sure, but I think we might have seen it when we were in Moscow for a few weeks in 1980.) To me, Future Pilots is a key work of the twentieth century. Three naked or half naked boys, still children, can be seen sitting at the waterfront, gazing out to the sea. The waves lap gently as they look up at an airplane. Even though the shore is reinforced, the boys have the world at their feet, as though it had only just begun, as though it was them who will be the future pilots, the first to explore and conquer the world, only prevented by a few years from doing it right away.

Pilots were the hero figures of the terrible twentieth century. The way they combined bravery and state-of-the-art technology was still credible; they were more than mere add-ons, captives to their machines. The plane in Deyneka’s painting seems a part of nature, like the waves and clouds. Decades later, the same cult of innocence underpinned the worship of the cosmonauts and the awe with which people gazed at spaceships as though they were stars. The painting depicts many aspects of my own vision of masculinity in my younger years: poise, starting from scratch, advancing toward the light, and lighthearted, fearless, unceasing playfulness. Present-day masculinities are different though. For most, male beauty is no longer provocative and rarely causes uncertainty. Today, in an age when the ground is shaking beneath our feet, where everything is in flux and the beautiful take to the skies, the question of what “being your own man” actually means remains unanswered.



Norbert Bisky (b. 1970 in Leipzig, Germany) lives and works in Berlin, Germany and Andalusia, Spain. He studied at the Berlin and Madrid University of the Arts and is one of the most successful representatives of contemporary figurative painting. The artist translates personal experiences of terror, journeys to Brazil, and influences from the media world into color-intensive scenes of beauty, sexuality, violence, and destruction. In Germany, Norbert Bisky is one of the most renowned painters of his generation.

His works have been shown in many international solo and group exhibitions, amongst others in the G2 Kunsthalle, Leipzig, Germ...
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