Saturday, April 5, 2008

Why Life Drawing?

People often ask me, "When you teach life drawing, are the models naked??"
"Umhmm," I nod, "yes."
Adults look at me wide eyed, like I've grown another head, and when the people who've asked the question are under twelve, their response is invariably, "Eeewuuuu!! That's disgusting!"
So I launch into my "the human body is beautiful" speech, and how, once you are drawing the figure, it's no different than drawing a landscape, or a bowl of fruit. I tell them that artists have been drawing the nude for millenia, etc, and if I'm in my studio, I'll pull my art history books off the shelves and show them the statue of David, or the Sistine Chapel.
The men say, "can anyone come and draw?" and the kids say "eeewuuu" again, unconvinced.
Who am I kidding? For me anyway, drawing the human figure is so very much more complicated than drawing a bowl of fruit! Agh, all my emotional and psychological baggage gets in the mix. I tend to draw "nakeds" not "nudes."
Other artists who do Nakeds:
Lucien Freud, Alice Neel, Egon Schiele, Otto Dix...all the German Expressionists...
and I'd say all Classical and Renaissance artists made nudes...the Romance artists, too...
What about Philip Pearlstein? Naked or Nude?
What makes a Naked and what makes a Nude? What are your thoughts?


Rob S. said...

Pearlstein's figures aren't either - they are just objects receiving the same treatment as the rugs and tables in his paintings.
With the way I paint, the model needs to sit for multiple sittings. And although I have done this, it is a very expensive venture. Therefore, I have few figure paintings in my cache. I would like to do more, but - well, I have never sold a nude, ever. I've sold a lot of landscapes with no people in them - clothed or otherwise. This is not to say that I refuse to paint another nude, because it isn't financially viable, but I just wonder if there is any interest anymore. Actually, I have a whole slew of ideas involving the figure that I plan on executing - sales be damned. But, is there anyone interested besides me?
I think the female nude, when depicted with sensitivity, can act as allegory for a whole range of emotions. When coupled with a certain palette and secondary focal planes, one can get a painting to resonate with a particular emotional pitch. I've yet to explore this fully, but I've touched upon it here and there, and I don't think that I could convey these things with a landscape or still life with the same depth.
The nude is important, because of the connection to our own humanity. Yes, often, the sexual component seems to be a hangup, but this, too, is a human trait. Depicting this aspect without taste lowers the art (sorry, John Currin!), and there are much more reverent ways to address this. Ultimately, though, life drawing & figure painting are probably the toughest thing for the representational artist. Because even the non-artist knows human anatomy, and if the artist errs in their depiction, the viewer will know right away. I used to tell my life drawing students that it was like hanging out your laundry for all to see. If you are adept at the figure, you can draw anything.

Martha Miller said...

hey, rob

thanks for your feedback! this is indeed an interesting topic. i agree with your pearlstein assessment.
wow. i was only periferally (sp?) aware of john currin amd just now looked at his work. yikes! sort of norman rockwell gone porno... i don't know, i hate to get hung up on content, but his sexual paintings are so controlled and contrived and perfectly rendered - like a pre-meditated crime, you know? i could almost accept them if there seemed to be some passion involved! they look like cheap thrills. but is this his point? i haven't read any of his artist statements - this is just my knee-jerk reaction.
you speak of the female nude as allegory for emotion. of course the male nude works as well...
i am certainly interested in the figure. i stopped working from the figure for many years when i was going through therapy. i did not trust that i would not be exploitive. i had my figurative work reviewed years ago and one critic described it as "electro-erotic." i was stunned - i wasn't conscious of this -
not that this a bad thing - i just felt like a loose canon with all my history showing up in every drawing. the model's nakedness was triggering and echoing my vulnerablity. i wasn't exploiting the model, i was exploiting myself. i feel like i have my skin back on now and can handle life drawing again!

Rob S. said...

"Electro-erotic" is a unique term! Did this critic qualify what they meant? I mean, you could apply this term to paintings of kitchen appliances in various states of undress (hahaha!).
My focus on the female nude is partially because of my natural attraction, but also because women are more substantive vessels of emotion. Therefore, when painted in allegory or metaphor, it is that much easier to convey emotion. Of course, this is one man's opinion on the matter. Male nudes, to me, generally convey power or aggression or confrontation; there's not much subtlety there. A muscular male model is fantastic to draw for the purity of anatomical study, but to craft a painting around it... I would just feel like putting the guy in some sort of battle scene.
John Currin has disappointed me thoroughly. I knew he was exploitative in a sense, but he was always a good painter, and walked the line between kitsch and the establishment. I especially enjoyed the period where he was directly referencing Cranach the Elder, Tiepolo and Courbet in more modern contexts. This latest stint at Gagosian is just plain outrageous for the sake of it - and it's not even good. He basically copied photos of porn scenes that may be older than me, and he did it rather badly, to boot. I think he's jaded and lazy, now, yet the art world will still collectively bend over for him. It's a shame, and so many things on so many levels have been demeaned by all this, I could rant for hours about it.
But I won't. I'm hopeful that the current void that is now the establishment of the art world will implode and give birth to some sort of beauty in art once again; ex nihilo, as it were.

martha said...

ha ha - yeah, the can opener and the toaster oven, in the night kitchen...shocking!

hey, rant away! that's one of the reasons i started this blog, so folks could voice opinions, judgements, peeves, preferences...

do please explain more about what you mean by "the current void that is now the establishment of the art world..."

permission to rant...

Don Gray said...

"Naked" accepts sexuality, eroticism and vulnerability as an intrinsic part of response to seeing the unclothed human figure. "Nude" implies an attempt to desexualize the figure to some extent. Depictions of nudes are generally a bit more chaste or modest in pose, overlaid somehow with a more romantic or classical notion of "beauty."

I agree with you Martha about Freud's figures being naked, not nude. It's not simply in the pose. It has to do somehow with the rawness of the paint application itself. And his figures impart to me a feeling of being exposed and completely vulnerable. A "nude" never appears vulnerable.

Martha Miller said...

Hi Don

Yes! Vulnerablity is a big part of it, isn't it. Someone else I was talking to about this last year said that Naked also implies a self-consciousness on the part of the subject - that the subject is aware that they are being looked at. But does this always = vulnerablity? If the subject is aware that he/she is being regarded but looks back with confidence, is the image still a Naked or is it a Nude? Is it simply about attitude?
I saw a huge Lucien Freud show in DC in the 80's and after I left the museum I felt as if I'd been skinned alive. I saw a Matisse exhibit in Baltimore shortly afterwards and it was the perfect antidote!

Rob S. said...

I wasn't referring to anything different than what Tom Wolfe wrote about in The Painted Word in 1975. It's just that things haven't gotten better since then - they've gotten worse.
The "void" to which I am referring is the gaping hole that art has fallen into within the high echelons of the art world. The Emperor has had no clothes for a long time now - that is: beauty and skilled craft in art has been relegated to "low art" ever since the late '40s. It's just that now, the Emperor is not only naked, he's been skinned alive, sliced in half and encased in a formaldehyde-filled tank a la Damien Hirst.
I truly think that, at the core of it, today's art writers and their toadies (the YBA's, Neo-conceptualists, et al) truly hate humanity. The human form - if not all forms of art - has been desecrated, destroyed and cast aside in the name of artistic growth. What's worse is that it's all in the public eye, funded by gazillionares like Saatchi, Gagosian and uber-museums like the Tate. Meanwhile the Stuckists have to show at CBGB's.
Anyway, I'm sorry to steer the debate of nude/naked towards the divisive theme of "what is art in modern times?" but my opinions and my training merge these two topics in far too many ways.

martha said...

Rob S wrote:
The human form - if not all forms of art - has been desecrated, destroyed and cast aside in the name of artistic growth. What's worse is that it's all in the public eye, funded by gazillionares like Saatchi, Gagosian and uber-museums like the Tate.

Rob, dare I ask what you think of Orlan? I believe the French government has funded her operating room performances...

Great conversation!

Off to teach - catch you all later!