Category Archives: Exhibitions & Books

The figure in history.

I read John Bergers book ‘Ways of seeing ‘ (Penguin books Ltd 2012 reissue) last year while I was trying to work out how much I wanted to do a degree. I managed to find a reading list online for a fine arts course and it was one of the cheaper books to get hold of. Its an eye opener.

I go to life studies as a choreographed way for me to speed up my sketching, I’m not in charge of the model and I’m not in control of the length of time I can have the pose, I have continued to learn about the human form, the muscles in the neck, the tension you can hold in an arm or down the torso in a twist at the waist/hips etc etc…

It is certainly not erotic. I and my fellow sketchers wrestle with the paper and our chosen mediums to create elements we are happy with before we quite literally lose the point and then search around for a pencil sharpener.

Bergers book shows that throughout history the nude was done for either the benefit of the patron commissioning the picture or because the artist had an affiliation (or wanted to)to the model. This carried on to Eduard Manets time where his painting of  Olympia was the first to boldly look back at the perceived viewer and engage them first with her eyes. At the time the fact that this was openly a painting of a prostitute was shocking and a contrast to say the clothed picture of Camille that Monet painted called le Japonais, here the look out of the canvas is almost shy and coquettish, it shows the affection she had for him (the husband/artist), as much as he had for her (as wife and model) The 20th century went through many styles of depicting the form from Picasso’s bathers who to me look like normal sized people going about a chore, through a ream of sexist advertising (the wonderbra billboards are a good case in point) to the work of Phillip Pearlstein (Pearlstein’s models are painted true to form with a definite harshness to the lighting, he does I note pick a thinner form to start with, although in his paintings to me the nude is sometimes an unnecessary distraction from the beautifully depicted play of light from the furniture against the floor or wall, or the view out of his New York apartment),  and Lucian Freud who must have left his models raw after they’d seen his view of them. these really are pictures of anyone and everyone, I think thats the point, they seem more intimate, the skin painted with more care to show its softness. however, the poses are more vulnerable, slightly contorted, the models don’t seem comfortable.

I’d like to think that the point to naked figure drawing has changed over the years, I’m currently reading a book about Andrew Wyeth (a secret life Richard Meryman, HarperCollins; First Edition edition 1997), I haven’t reached the Helga years, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the fact is that art is created for the same reasons as it ever was, but doesn’t need to hide behind the metaphor of the historical reference, myth or religious allegory it has throughout history. I can’t say I am comfortable with this view but it is formed on the body of work produced mostly by men who have either shagged all their models, or been paid to paint mistresses left right and centre.

Not a lot I can add to that without finding a load of female artists and their histories, which, lets face facts is like hunting for rocking horse shit. Tracey Emin in the last couple of years took herself off to America to learn how to draw, and has created some large scale works with more than a hint of Egon Schiele about them, they are not overworked and they aren’t overly personal, in that her connection to the model seems to me to be fleeting, disassociated.

I hope over the coming years I can come up with a better answer than this, it will have to suffice for now.