The naked and the nude

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Life Drawing (A3 charcoal 2016)

In his seminal book, Ways of Seeing, the great – and now late – John Berger attempted a new way of looking at art. His low budget television series of the same name (which can be found in its entirety on YouTube) had one eye on Sir Kenneth Clark’s much better funded Civilisation when it turned its attention to the matter of having no clothes on.

‘To be naked is to be oneself,’ said Berger, ‘To be naked is to be without disguise…To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognized for oneself. A naked body has to be seen as an object in order to become a nude…Nakedness reveals itself. Nudity is placed on display.’

The nude is a commodity, often commissioned by men, which Berger captured succinctly when he said, ‘You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting “Vanity,” thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for your own pleasure.’

Today, if we want to look at naked people we no longer have to surround them with cherubs or call them after one of the seven deadly sins. Perhaps in response to this, painters have changed their view of the body: Lucian Freud made a career out of painting naked people that turned a harsh light on to the flesh, removing eroticism from the equation almost completely.

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Life Drawing (A3 pencil on newsprint 2016)

Where does that leave life drawing? It’s partially an exercise in seeing and the coordination between hand and eye. The living life model in front of you could just as well be a vase of flowers or an arrangement of apples and oranges then? Not really. There is something different about drawing the living figure, as I discovered when I first started attending classes. It was difficult, for a start: the arm exists in relation to the shoulder, in relation to the hip on which the hand rests, in relation to the backdrop, in relation to the negative space formed by the shoulder/elbow/hip triangle. There is more though: you may have a relationship to a vase of flowers, but I believe you must have a relationship to the fellow human standing naked, not nude, before you.

In The Undressed Art: Why We Draw, Peter Steinhart addresses the matter of looking at life models in this way: ‘You would quickly feel a human connection, a kind of compassion with them. You might also begin to feel that there is an immense dignity, energy, beauty in them. And somewhere along the line you might realise that you are more or less abandoned to your gaze, that there is something fundamentally human in your curiosity.’

I came across these two life drawings recently while searching for something else. You produce a lot of drawings in a term’s worth of classes, and many end up in the recycling. These two remained in the folder, however, largely because they conveyed something of the humanity of the model. Both were obviously quick poses, but both, I think, captured the dignity, the energy and perhaps even the beauty of the sitter.

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‘If I’m a storyteller it’s because I listen’

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John Berger (23cms x 30cms charcoal and pastel 2016)

Saturday was the 90th birthday of writer, artist and thinker, John Berger. I first encountered him in the 1970s, as the hip presenter of the television series on art, Ways of Seeing, by which time he’d already had a career as an artist and a Booker Prizewinning novelist.

He’s one of those people – like Parker J Palmer, Joni Mitchell and Arvo Pärt – whom you want to go on forever. The world feels like a better place for their being in it and you know that when they go it’ll seem a little poorer, a little less varied. His novels are something of an acquired taste, (I’ve never managed to finish one), but his books of essays contain riches beyond compare. Of The Shape of a Pocket, Berger himself writes

a pocket is formed when two or more people come together in agreement…The people coming together are the reader, me and those the essays are about – Rembrandt, Palaeolithic cave painters, a Romanian peasant, ancient Egyptians, an expert in the loneliness of certain hotel bedrooms, dogs at dusk, a man in a radio station. And unexpectedly, our exchanges strengthen each of us in our conviction that what is happening to the world today is wrong, and that what is often said about it is a lie.

Doesn’t that make you want to rush round to your local bookseller or click on your non-exploitative online retailer without further ado?

One always longs to meet one’s heroes and I did meet John Berger when I worked in a London bookshop in 1979.

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The shop hosted a launch party for his novel, Pig Earth, but sadly I knew him mainly as a TV presenter and I was over-awed by his presence. If I knew then what I know now, there are so many things I would have asked. Perhaps I would even manage a better portrait than the one above. However, we are lucky to have his books, which are like hearing a master storyteller describe his travels beyond the mountains, to the countries of the mind where you follow because he leads.

Happy birthday, John.