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.
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.