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Friday 11 January 2008

no sex please, we're artists

For the new year I composed a light-hearted post, a collection of overheard snatches of conversation from around the galleries. Here are some I kept back, for reasons which I hope will become apparent. Actually, they are the very reverse of those previous snippets which, unlike these, were positive if nothing else, whilst these are more honest and less pretentious, though not dialogue at all really, but fragments from a monologue delivered by a young man, possibly a student, to his long-suffering female companion:-

"Why you don't get nudes any more is because that's drawing, innit? And drawing's had the old heave-ho. Finally. Should have happened when they came up with the camera, but better late than never. Junked. Up there in the attic with the Brownie Box."

"I thought I told you: they binned the life-class, so they did. It's nothing now, a bit on the side, that's all. Like an art school travel brochure promising top-ups of escapism. Nudes are just not the business any more. Dead and buried, along with true-to-life an' all that malarkey."

"Now we're talking Bacon and his like. Naked figures, but not your history nudes. Art, not art history. What goes in real life is not what goes on the canvas, and what goes on the canvas the canvas changes."

"They rattle on about draughtsmanship, "the way that plane tucks under this and the shoulder thrusts forward," etc, etc, ad bloody infinitum. What's that all about, eh? Where's the big, big deal?"

"Painting should be sexy, but those life classes were so classy and so pissing spiritual, they turned yer pictures sour!"

At the time I was struck, first by what a good case he seemed to be making for drawing, for the life-class and for the study of the human frame generally. He obviously did not intend it as that, and I must admit that reading it now in cold print it does not read so, but that is what I thought at the time. Maybe, had my
speed-writing skills been less limited and had I been able to get it all down, it might be reading now as it sounded then. Who knows? But at the time it was as though he had produced, in spite of himself, the negative for a snapshot of a corner of art that he believed to have been killed-off. My next thought was that, had he been around at the time, he surely would have been declaring the nude dead and buried back in the sixteenth century, killed-off as a result of the deliberations of The Council of Trent, The Roman Catholic Church's fightback against The Renaissance. It resulted, in 1549, in the banning of books, the laying down of rules governing religious art and music, the reform of the liturgy and the denunciation of Michelangelo as "an inventor of filthiness who cared more for art than for devotion". Later, after Michelangelo's death, loin cloths were added to the nude figures on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, and there were even moves to have the whole ceiling scraped clean.

Finally though, I was reminded of Wallace Stevens's poem, The Man With the Blue Guitar. Here are the opening lines:

The man bent over his guitar,
A shearsman of sorts. The day was green.
They said, "You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are."
The man replied, "Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar."

It is a phenomenon not confined to music. Indeed, the guitar is Stevens's image for poetry, but could as easily stand for any of the arts, for if you draw anything, and draw it well enough (i.e. if you are a genius!) it will become an instrument and play your tune. (Make any graven image - my friend was quite right - and you change it for ever, so far as the perception of it goes. No wonder there are religions that do not allow graven images of their god(s) - or of their god's creation.) Sunflowers and yellow chairs did not look like that until van Gogh painted them. They do now. They play his tune.

So what, to quote my friend, is "the big, big deal"? What is so special about the nude figure in art or the life class in art training? If it is true, as I am here suggesting, that to draw anything well enough is to change for ever the way it is perceived, how is it that the nude figure manages to rise head and shoulders above all else and make itself so special? Why can we apparently not do without it, despite what my friendly art student says? Over the years, ever since I first put foot in art school, everyone has wanted to know the answer to that question. Every significant one that is: parents, grandparents, casual acquaintances, friends, aunts and uncles. No doubt about what was bugging them: sex. Trot out the "official" explanations (for which, see the bullet points at the end of this post) and I was likely to get the same sort of response that a stripper might when detailing her "artistic" reasons for divesting herself of her clothes. Try as they would, my nearest and dearest could never quite divorce the situation of a young man staring at a naked woman for three hours from the thought that sex must be in there somewhere. And perhaps it was, for there are those - I among them - who think that the ability to appreciate beauty in any of its forms must be derived, ultimately, from the sexual instinct, from our inborn instinct to see in the human form that which attracts us. It seems to me that the sex drive (or an off-shoot of it) is as active in our appreciation of a landscape or an oak tree as in our admiration of the human form. Of course, no one would ever believe that it wasn't more active in the life class than in most other places. Did they but know! I would not use my friend's word, spiritual, to describe the environment there, but whatever is a secular word or phrase meaning the opposite to a hot-bed of lewd fantasies would do very nicely.

Two life studies by a very underrated artist.
Above are: Titian's "Venus of Urbino" and Michelangelo's "Drunken Noah".

I have a vivid recollection of one of my fellow students, a small man, a bundle of energy, who believed fervently that to paint successfully it was necessary to be "sexually primed" - for which, of course, it was necessary to lead a life of celibacy. (In case you are wondering, he painted mostly tranquil landscapes and rather drab scenes of labouring men at work. Something akin to van Gogh's earliest canvases.) Whenever there was talk of boyfriends and girlfriends, he would excuse himself, saying: "I'm saving all my sex for my paintings". And he meant it. His enthusiasm for the life class (no threat to his chaste condition) was boundless.

So what then are (were?) the "official" reasons for the preeminence at art school of the life class?

  • Not, as many seem to believe, that the human form is more "difficult" to draw than other subjects. It is no more so than, say, a horse, a landscape or a lichen-covered rock. It is more challenging to draw, because we are human, we know what one of us should look like (within bounds), are sympathetic to our form and sensitive to variations in it. We know instinctively if something is not right, may not be able to analyze precisely what and may have to make do with "something funny about that arm", or some such vagueness. If Joe Average was to draw each of my four suggested subjects, he would likely finish with four paintings of roughly comparable quality - and be least satisfied with the nude (as would we be), for the human form would give the clearest feedback, would most clearly not be playing the artist's tune, and so would most clearly confirm the fact that genius level has not yet been reached. (Actually, the horse might be the most difficult of the four subjects, owing to its refusal to remain still!)

  • A good knowledge of anatomy is necessary to represent even clothed figures convincingly. The jacket will not look right unless it is painted with an understanding of the structure beneath, for it is that that gives it its form.

  • We are most readily motivated by, and engage with, the human form - back to sex again?

  • An understanding of the nude form, realistically portrayed, and in is various stylizations, is essential to an understanding of most of the great epochs and movements of art: Classical, Renaissance, Romantic, and not forgetting much primitive art. A hands-on approach is by far the best way to come to such an understanding. Certainly, any personal experience of the difficulties to be overcome, will contribute to a more rounded understanding of artistic achievement

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