Male Skin: On the Vulnerability of What Looks Armored

Ernst van Alphen

In mythologies, but also in cultural practices like body building, the male body has an armored skin. The hardened skin makes men not only less vulnerable but, in the case of myths, also immortal. The Greek myth of Achilles is probably one of the best known examples. The greatest hero of the Trojan war, Achilles was known for his physical strength and his mental courage as well as his near-invulnerability. Nearly invulnerable but not completely, because something went wrong in the production of it. He was the son of the sea nymph Thetis and Peleus, king of Phthia. Achilles was invulnerable in all parts of his body except for one heel, because when his mother Thetis dipped him in the river Styx as an infant to make him immortal, she held him by one of his heels. As a result, his heel was his point of weakness; according to some sources he was killed near the end of the Trojan War by Paris, who shot him in his heel with an arrow.

Another well-known example stems from the Medieval mythical story The Nibelungenlied (around 1200). The main hero is said to be “horned” and also his skin is invulnerable. He possesses a skin so hard “that no weapon will bite it” (1969, 28). The origin of his invulnerability is slightly different than that of Achilles. He was not bathed in the Stynx, but in the blood of a dragon he had slain. In the words of Claudia Benthien, “the invulnerable skin is a mark of distinction Siegfried receives for his heroic courage and ability to overcome his revulsion at bathing in the dragon blood while it was still steaming hot” (2002: 134). The tanning and anointing of the skin endow it with additional strength and thickness.

Like Achilles, Siegfried has one spot, which he himself describes as his “open door”, on his body, which makes him vulnerable. During the first night with his bride Kriemhild he reveals to her that his otherwise godlike male body has a weak spot, or open door. “Through its placement within the context of the lover’s confessions, the divulging of the vulnerable spot is symbolically equated to the loss of Kriemhild’s virginity on the wedding night: it equals the sacrifice of her erotic surrender and this is also in part a feminization of the hero. (Benthien 134). The naïve Kriemhild reveals Siegfried’s vulnerable spot to Hagen of Troneck, who next kills Siegfried with an arrow between his shoulder blades, which was his vulnerable spot.

In my book Francis Bacon and the Loss of Self (1992), I have argued that the weakest spot of the male body is his penis. The control that a man can get over his body through bodybuilding, for example, he does not have, or has only to a limited degree, over his penis.

These three examples of the idealization of the armored and hardened male body provide an excellent framework for an understanding of the work of Brazilian artist Célio Braga. Not because his work is inspired by these notions of masculinity, on the contrary, but because it can best be seen in its difference from those ideals. For two of his projects, Braga makes use of conventional men’s shirts: for one, he only uses white shirts (2001-2); for the more recent project (2022-23) the shirts are in whatever color or pattern, but always as variations of the conventional men’s shirt. Braga considers the works of both projects as ‘portraits’. The works in the older project for which he only used white shirts are portraits of gay friends. The more recent project also present portraits of friends but not necessarily gay ones. Since the twentieth century, the kind of shirts Braga uses for these projects dress male bodies all over the world and has become an iconic sign of conventional masculinity. But the shirt, especially when it is white, does not only dress the male body respectfully. It also protects the masculinity that it stands for. One could say that this kind of man’s shirt functions as an armored skin protecting a masculinity that is more vulnerable than it seems when it wears a shirt like this.

Before discussing Braga’s two projects with men’s shirts, I will first say a few words about his works on paper, photography and textiles, and more specifically what his work in these different media has in common. This is the wounded body instead of the armored body. In the Western tradition the wounded body is a common sight because it is a favorite theme. Those bodies are mainly, but not exclusively, male: the crucified Christ, St. Sebastian pierced by arrows and many other saints whose wounded bodies demonstrate their devotion to what transgresses the bodily. Braga, however, does endorse a notion of the wounded body very different from the Christian tradition, because his thematic of the wounded body does not establish a relation between body and heavenly transgression; his wounded body is permeable and opens up a relation with other bodies. This makes the wounded body not into something painful and negative, but into a condition that can be endorsed because it is enjoyable and pleasurable.

Let me first say something about his notion of skin and the wounded body as such before assessing the gendered nature of it. Braga’s photograph Bleeding Hair (2005) shows a close-up of human skin. It is the skin of a man, I presume, because it is abundantly hairy. The hairs are, however, red as if blood runs through them; they look like capillaries. The sight of these blood-red hairs on human skin is uncanny; it confuses the reassuring categories of common, everyday life. Confusing categories, the body’s inside shows itself on the outside. Thus, the boundary of the physical body has been transgressed.

This photograph is emblematic of Braga’s work, and this, in many respects[1] . For skin is the central idea that connects his works in the different media in which he operates. Only in some cases, as in the photograph just described, does he represent real skin. More often, he deals with the medium or material he uses (the sheet of paper on which he draws or paints, a photograph) as a kind of skin. They are not “grounds” or “screens” on which the image will be formed. He deals with these surfaces as skins to the extent that they embody a boundary upon which the artist acts. The sheet is not only a surface, it has two sides, and it can be approached, touched, worked upon from both sides. The sheet as boundary surface is cut, perforated and sewn.

The gestures Braga has performed on the surfaces of his works imply a notion of skin that differs from the common one. It is grounded in a phenomenological and psychoanalytical view of skin, although not limited to such a view. French psychoanalyst Didier Anzieu explains this view in his book The Skin Ego: A Psychoanalytic Approach of The Self (1989). According to Anzieu, the skin serves the purposes of containment, protection, and communication:

The primary function of the skin is as the sac which contains and retains inside it the goodness and fullness accumulating there through feeding, care, the bathing in words. Its second function is as the interface which marks the boundary with the outside and keeps that outside out; it is the barrier which protects against penetration by the aggression and greed emanating from others, whether people or objects. Finally, the third function—which the skin shares with the mouth and which it performs at least as often—is as a site and a primary means of communication with others, of establishing signifying relations; it is moreover, an “inscribing surface” for the marks left by those others. (40)

Anzieu is not speaking of the physical properties of the skin but of the metaphoric qualities of flesh. His concept of “skin ego” articulates this beautifully. By “Skin Ego,” Anzieu explains, “I mean a mental image of which the Ego of the child makes use during the early phases of its development to represent itself as an Ego containing psychic contents, on the basis of its experience of the surface of the body”(40), The skin’s functions of containment, protection, and communication are the result of a dual process of interiorization. Two spatial aspects of the skin need to be internalized.  First of all, the interface between the bodies of the child and the mothering figure (what Anzieu calls the “psychic envelope”), and second, the mothering environment itself with all its verbal, visual, and emotional properties. Anzieu articulates this concept of skin ego and this dual interface by means of the somewhat odd word combination “the goodness and fullness accumulating there through feeding, care, the bathing in words.”

Of course, this view of a psychoanalyst cannot be unproblematically brought to bear on works of art. But to the extent that it represents a philosophical conception as well, it can be brought into dialogue with art. I contend that Braga’s work engages a dialogue with this rich conception of skin. The artist’s work “on the skin” seems to challenge the skin’s functions of containment and protection. His detail of a male skin suggests that some of the objects of containment, notably the blood on which life depends and which can be cold or hot, are no longer contained by the skin; the “capillaries” are laid bare and have entered the outside world. The identity between hairs on the outside and capillaries on the inside constitutes a visual pun that raises numerous issues of life, touch, and sensation. As a consequence of this pun, he also challenges the common notion of the skin’s metaphorical meaning of ego. His works utterly lack the wholeness such a meaning implies. Thus, while endorsing, or absorbing Anzieu’s extension of the skin into the environment, he declines the totalizing wholeness that retreats back into the skin as a boundary of the human individual.

Instead, in his work, skin is presented as highly permeable. It opens out to the world. It does not mark a boundary; rather it is a zone of contact where spaces and beings are entangled, dissolved, and consequently lose themselves. In Anzieu’s terms this can be understood as “the common skin fantasy.” Anzieu characterizes this fantasy of human relationships as problematic because it is not taking place between autonomous individuals but as mutual symbiotic dependency. Braga, however, enacts the common skin fantasy as attractive and seductive, rather than problematic. In his work he explores the attractions of the fantasy of “a skin we share”.

Another photograph from 2005 conveys this positive notion of depersonalization, or perhaps better, de-individualization, in yet other ways. The photograph is again a close up of human skin. A text has been written on the skin/photograph by means of perforation. It must be noted, however, that the text is not inscribed onto the skin. It bursts out of the skin. The perforations are not penetrations of the skin. They have been performed from the back to the front[2] of the photograph, from the inside to the outside of the skin.

The following text is a quotation from Flaubert’s The Temptation of Saint Anthony:


O joy! O bliss! I have beheld the birth of life. I have seen the beginning of motion! My pulses throb even to the point of bursting. I long to fly, to swim, to bark, to bellow, to howl. Would that I had wings, a carapace, a shell,--that I could breathe out smoke, wield a trunk,--make my body writhe,--divide myself everywhere,--be in everything,--emanate with all odours,--develop myself like the plants,--flow like water,--vibrate like sound—shine like light,--assume all forms—penetrate each atom—descend to the very bottom of matter,--be matter itself!

This pantheistic text can be seen as programmatic of Braga’s work. In the words of Caillois[3] , Anthony feels himself becoming space. He wants to assume all forms, he does not want to be similar to something specific, but just similar. Ultimately, the quotation articulates the absolute negation of boundaries and distinctions, and offers a notion of subjectivity that is not based on differentiation but on intimate connectedness.

The French thinker Roger Caillois[4] has described this “desire to be similar” in a famous essay titled “Mimicry and Legendary Psychastenia.” One speaks of mimicry when organisms adopt the visual looks of their surroundings so that there is no longer a clear-cut distinction between the organism and its surroundings. This idea was widely discussed in the surrealist movement, to which Caillois was related.

Caillois especially uses the example of the praying mantis, an insect that is more or less invisible in its leafy milieu. His discussion of “mimetic insects” leads, however, to a discussion of a specific personality, what he calls the psychology of psychasthenia. He refers to the theoretical and clinical writings of the 19th- century French psychiatrist Pierre Janet to describe this kind of personality.  For this personality, mimicry is not a defense mechanism but an inability. Caillois describes it as a form of insectoid psychosis. The animal is unable to keep the distinction between itself and its leafy milieu intact. The psychosis manifests itself as depersonalization by assimilation to space:

The individual breaks the boundary of his skin and occupies the other side of his senses. He tries to look at himself from any point whatever of space. He feels himself becoming space, dark space where things cannot be put. He is similar, not similar to something, but just similar. And he invents spaces of which he is the convulsive possession. (72)

This psychotic case of mimicry addresses the visual condition of figure and ground. For this reason, this idea has been taken up in art-historical reflections. In the words of Krauss: “[it] would cancel all separations of figures from their surrounding spaces or backgrounds to produce a continuum unimaginable for our earthly bodies to traverse” (Bois and Krauss, 75).

This unimaginable continuum is the basis of Braga’s re-conceptualization of drawing. In Braga’s white and black drawings, the figure-ground distinction is no longer at work. The cuts form a distinct shape, not on, but in the paper, but that shape is part of the continuum in which it has come about. This continuum is not only produced by the lack of color distinction but also by the procedures performed on the paper. The sheet of paper is in the most literal way neither the ground nor the surface onto which the drawing is added or applied. The sheet of paper is a site, the place of action of a time-consuming activity that connects front and back of the sheet of paper. Thus, paradoxically, cutting becomes a form of connecting. This includes the association with blood, danger, and pain. The organ-like shapes that are the result of this connecting activity intensify the connotations which were already produced by this activity. The question of boundary is not only put forward by the Deleuzian motif of the organs-without-body but also by the refusal of the figure-ground relationship that produces boundaries as contour. The organs are even deprived of their own precarious delimitations.

So far, this assessment of Braga’s work is not gendered, makes no distinction between a male notion of skin and a female one. In order to better understand Braga’s engagement with male bodies and male skin, I will draw on the diaries and the literary text “In the Penal Colony” (1919) by Franz Kafka. According to Claudia Benthien, Kafka’s diaries (1909-1923) “are a unique document of physiognomic description, a mode of description that uses the structures and qualities of the surface of the body and the face” (112). In his diaries, Kafka frequently writes about the despair over his “physical condition”: “Nothing can be accomplished with such a body” (1990, 668); “I write this very decidedly out of despair over my body and over a future with this body” (1990, 594). His body causes “a loneliness…. that is organic with me—as though I consisted only of bones” (1990, 881). Kafka does not consider his skin but his bones as the bodily part demarcating and determining his self; not the skin as psychic envelope but his bones as psychic scaffolding.

Loneliness is experienced as the absence of contact in the original sense of the word, as the existence of a person who feels only his bones, because the skin is sensually felt and experienced only through touch. Just as the skin of people he sketches in his diaries is described primarily as fleshy material and as such as repulsive, in these passages, as well his own skin is not a place of contact but merely of closure. (Benthien 121)

The notion of his own male skin differs, however from how he looks at female skin. The ordinary condition of his own skin is as if it is hard like bones or steel and closes off his body completely: “For the length of a moment I felt myself clad in steel” (1990, 612). But like Siegfried in The Nibelungenlied, the steel armor has an open door, or in the case of Kafka, several. “When I lay in bed this afternoon and someone quickly turned a key in the lock, for a moment I had locks all over my body, as though at a costume ball, and at short intervals a lock was opened or shut here and there” (1990, 723). Kakfa experiences imaginary openings distributed over his body which are arbitrarily opened and closed by strangers; it is ambivalent if this opening and closing of the body is a secret pleasure or a danger that threatens his self.

In Kafka’s eyes, female skin is formless and fleshy and it needs the second skin of clothing to feel[5] attracted to them. ”Women require an additional skin of sturdy, body-shaping clothes to keep from dissolving. It is only this diaperlike enwrapment in a second skin that makes them erotic” (Benthien, 116). Whereas male skin (his own) is described as one that is stretched over the bones, like a secondary skin and is marked by wounds, birthmarks and other openings, the female skin is fluid, fleshy, and formless. This means that female skin is neither protective nor graspable; it cannot be hardened like leather or steel (117).

Whereas Kafka’s notion of male skin is like scaffolding, Anzieu discusses another body image that seems to be at stake in Kafka’s story “In the Penal Colony” (1919). The skin is now more like a bowl with small holes in it for draining water off vegetables, a colander that is. The skin is perforated and offers no protection of any kind, has no “container function” any more and ultimately results in complete depersonalization. Phantasmatic experiences of perforation of the skin are not forms of fragmentation or dismemberment but concerns an anxiety of a flowing away of vital substances through holes. According to Anzieu, some patients describe themselves as “an egg with a broken shell being emptied of its white (actually of its yolk)” (39). In Kafka’s story, an ingenious torture machine penetrates in a lengthy, elaborate procedure penetrates the offender’s body surface with countless needles, inscribing his sentence on or in the skin and eventually killing him. Whereas most literary scholars have read this story as describing a process by which the law is inscribed in the body as an image for the violent process of internalization, Benthien reads it as staging the dilemma of how to experience skin contact.

According to Anzieu, an infant learns to differentiate between two very different forms of skin contact: those that communicate excitation or in the most negative case pain, and those that communicate information. The former are related to masochism; the latter to narcissism (Anzieu 1989, 43). In Kafka’s story there is a transition from the communication of meaning (the inscription of the law) in the first part of the story, to excitation in the form of perverse, excessive, and lethal stimulation. “What this means, in generalizing terms, is that Kafka does not conceive of touching as message (e.g. the demonstration of affection or hatred) but essentially as pain” (Benthien 120).

Braga’s notion of skin and of skin contact differs in many respects from Kafka’s. The reason why I have paid so much attention to it is that, read through Anzieu’s prism, it offers a discourse that enables me to assess more specifically Braga’s understanding and exploration of skin, and more specially of male skin.

Braga’s first project with male shirts was done in the years 2001-2002, at the end of the AIDS crisis, which had started in the 1980s. Of course, there is no real end to this crisis but due to the development of medication one could prevent HIV developing into AIDS. He asked his gay friends, who were then still extremely vulnerable to the threat of AIDS, for an old white shirt. Of course, the provenance mattered in a situation where purchasing the required shirts was just as easy. He compressed each shirt, stitched it together and added embroidery to it. The surfaces of the resulting knotty and hard objects are elaborately ornate, decorated with loving hands. The resulting organic forms, 28 in total, were hung together from the ceiling. Hung without visible hooks, they appeared as if growing from the ceiling, not fixed to it. The shapes looked like organs or abstracted bodies. But for the absence of hooks, the fact that they were hanging from the ceiling evoked the hanging of slaughtered animals in a butcher shop – or in an old master painting of a butcher shop. The materials and procedures which had resulted in this installation are again emphatically coded. Textiles and embroidery, as well as the performed operations of stitching, embroidering, and folding, are seen as feminine. The provenance of the shirts is an indispensable, performative element in this work, for it is through it that the skin, warmth and all, comes into purview. The white shirts on which these different operations had been performed evoke the skin of his friends’ bodies. When worn by the friends, they protected, contained, and dressed those bodies. Whereas as a social element of a dress code, a white shirt as such is an anonymous object, and the moment we see it in a drawer or in a closet it becomes an index of its owner. The presence of the body is evoked in the most intimate way. But now the bodies are no longer present. This negative suggestion of bodily presence is, however, turned inside out when the embroidered objects are hanging as sculptures from the ceiling. There, the white shirts are no longer presented as the “second skin” of a person’s body. Now, they have body themselves, they are bodies or bodily organs. The shirts no longer function as a second skin or boundary; as the social boundary between nakedness and acceptable clothing. Instead, the inside and the outside of that boundary have become one contiguous field.

Although made of soft textile, the embroidered bodies look hard like steel. Whereas his gay friends were still extremely vulnerable to AIDS, Braga transformed their second skin into an armor that would protect them. The humble aesthetics of embroidery with which textile is transformed into solid organ-like objects demonstrates Braga’s care for his friends.

 Although again made of conventional men’s shirts, the project he started in 2022 is very different. First of all, the shirts are no longer just white and the provenance of them is not exclusively of gay friends, but male friends of whatever sexual orientation. And this time Braga does not transform the shirts into hard organ-like objects but composes square, flat objects by weaving textile[6] strips onto wooden frames. In the texture that results from this process, one can still recognize the cuffs and the collar of the shirt, and some strips of textile still have buttons on or buttonholes in them. In each work, the woven texture is slightly different: in some works, the gauze[7] is completely in balance and relaxed; in others, one can notice slight tenses between the woven stripes. The specificity of each shirt but also the differences in how they are woven turn these works into portraits of individual male friends of Braga. But what all these slight differences share and have in common[8] is just as important.

These textures are far from armored. The woven fabric has and suggests openings, “open doors” in the words of The Nibelungenlied’s Siegfried.  These portraits of male friends, or their woven skins, are the opposite of invulnerable. Earlier I argued that in Braga’s work the common skin fantasy is not presented as problematic, as clinical disease or perversity, that is, but as attractive and seductive. The woven skins of his male friends are entangled instead of hardened and harnessed. His project made of the white shirts of his gay friends presented their bodies as hard and invulnerable to arm them against AIDS. With his recent male shirt project, Braga is not fighting against AIDS but against the conventional notion of masculinity according to which men should be invulnerable. The portraits of his friends are like enlargements of the proverbial Achilles’ heel; vulnerability all over.

In Braga’s exhibition in the Hague Kunst Museum the two groups of works with men’s shirts were presented opposite each other. In many respects they were the center of the exhibition which showed also many of his other works. They were the center of the exhibition not only because of how they were positioned, but also because they demonstrate most clearly the social and political embedding of Braga’s art.

The transgressed boundaries in Braga’s work that I have discussed, concern the distinctions between self and other, between inside and outside, between form and content, between figure and ground, between sight and other senses, and the absolute boundary between life and death. One boundary should be added now to this list: the one between masculinity and femininity. It is also this last boundary that positions Braga’s work socially and historically, and that provides an interpretive context for the positivity of his notion of a common skin - a skin we share.

Text Editing: Dionea Rocha Watt

Works Cited 

Alphen, Ernst van. Francis Bacon and the Loss of Self. Cambridge MA:  Harvard University Press, 1992

Anzieu, Didier. The Skin Ego: A Psychoanalytic Approach of the Self. Translated from the French by Chris Turner. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989

Benthien, Claudia. Skin. On the Cultural Border Between Self and the World. Translated by Thomas Dunlap. New York: Columbia University Press 2002

Bois, Yve-Alain and Rosalind Krauss. Formless: A Users Guide. New Yrok: Zone Books, 1997

Caillois, Roger.  “Mimicry and Legendary Psychasthenia,” translated by John Shepley, October: The First Decade, 1976-1986. edited by Ann Michelson and R. Krauss. Cambridge: MIT press, 1987

Kafka, Franz. “In the Penal Colony”, The Complete Stories. Ed. Nahum N. Glatzer. New York: Schocken, 1983

Kafka, Franz. Schriften, Tagebücher, Briefe. Kritische Ausgabe. Frankfurt: Fischer 1990

The Nibelungenlied. Translated by A.T. Hatto. New York: Penguin, 1969