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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The invisible Mrs Hopper

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Life Drawing (20 cms x 30 cms charcoal 2016)

Cultural history is littered with examples of men falling for women with similar artistic ambitions but who, as the wedding day approached, suggested their future wives may want to leave the work of being the family genius to them. Gustav Mahler, for example, insisted that his wife Alma cease composing when they married. It wasn’t until some years later, when Alma began an affair with the Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius, and sought advice from Sigmund Freud, that Mahler realised that perhaps he’d been unreasonable and helped Alma orchestrate and promote her songs.

In Olivia Laing‘s compelling and revealing book, The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone, we encounter the sad story of Josephine Niveson. Jo, as she was known, was  ‘tiny and tempestuous: a talkative, hot-tempered, sociable woman…doggedly making her way as an artist’ when she met Edward Hopper. After they married, Laing writes, ‘her own career, previously much fought for, much defended, dwindled away to almost nothing’. She became Hopper’s business manager and muse, posing for most of the usherettes, waitresses and pensive women sitting on beds in their underwear that populate Hopper’s paintings.

A model, yes; a rival, no. The other reason Jo’s career foundered is that her husband was profoundly opposed to its existence. Edward didn’t just fail to support Jo’s painting, but rather worked actively to discourage it, mocking and denigrating the few things she did manage to produce, and acting with great creativity and malice to limit the conditions in which she might paint. [The Lonely City, p.37]

Little of Jo Hopper’s work survives. Her husband left her everything, asking that she bequeath his art to the Whitney Museum.

After his death, she donated both his and the majority of her own artistic estates to the museum, even though she’d felt from the moment of her marriage that she’d been the victim of a boycott by the curators there…After her death, the Whitney discarded all her paintings, perhaps because of their calibre and perhaps because of the systematic undervaluing of women’s art against which she’d railed so bitterly in her own life. [The Lonely City, p.39]

I illustrate this post – somewhat ironically – with two drawings from Ed Cooper‘s inspirational life drawing classes earlier this year. Being a model is one area where women have had little trouble carving a niche through the ages. The subject of these drawings, Blue King, is a highly creative woman in her own right and an active participant in the process, making life class a true partnership between the tutor, the model and the person drawing.

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Life Drawing [Re-drawn] (A5 pencil 2016)

I have to wonder what we’re missing when women’s creative contributions are repeatedly consigned to drawers, cupboards, attics or – in the case of Jo Hopper’s work – the refuse bins outside the back of the Whitney Museum.