My first impression of Ellis Avery’s novel The Last Nude was, “Oh brother, another tale of the artist sleeping with the model.” I’ve been hard-pressed to find a book or a movie where this doesn’t enter the plot. Of course, much of history upholds this narrative with Diego Rivera’s mad lust for his models, Lucien Freud’s misogyny, and Picasso’s narcissism. In the film Venus, Peter O’Toole’s character has an old man boner for a young girl that he convinces to model – the purpose, of course, being so that he can peer in through a window and see what she looks like naked. The idea of the art model as an object of lust is really the only narrative we hear about in the mainstream.
The most realistic representation of what the artist/model relationship is like is in a French film entitled The Artist And The Model. This film was not only very realistic, but it showed the process of making art in a way that we never get to see outside of actual studios. At one point, the artist feels the curve of the model’s knee and reaches around the muscles of her shoulders, which makes her rather nervous regarding his intentions. Set in the forties, there were less rules then. Today, an artist generally never touches the model, though sometimes it still happens in the most unobtrusive ways.
I’ve written before about how I often run across people who are judgmental of my life as an art model. They picture the studio as some den of depravity, where pervs are sketching me one minute and jacking off in the bathroom in the next. Those that judge seem to think of me as some kind of enabler. They admonish the thought of running across a painting of me nude, and then what?
As I leave my body to be still in the pose – I observe the artists as they grow in their skill, approaching the difficult equation of capturing the human form, creating shape through shadow and light, measuring each angle, examining my structure next to a skeleton, identifying every muscle and how it connects to other muscles and bones. I am a living and breathing human anatomy lesson.
From my point of view, art modeling has been a study in subtle realistic poses – contrapposto, odalisque, the curve of the back, the angle of the head. I know exactly what my body can handle for what length of time. The pressures of stillness are a strange study, and I’ve learned from many mistakes – how to create poetry while balancing your weight to avoid pain.
In The Last Nude, the famous Art Deco artist Tamara de Lempicka picks up an American female model in the Bois de Boulogne. Rafaela is still a teenager, but she’s been selling her body to old rich men for a life of independence in 1920’s Paris. Tamara seduces her, and Rafaela falls in love. It’s the first time that Rafaela sleeps with a person for the love of it, rather than for what she wants. But is that really the case? In the heat of their summer together, Tamara paints the most stunning nude of her career. She keeps her motivations a secret from Rafaela, and to the young naive girl, the relationship is not what it seems.
I work in a wide range of settings, mainly art schools and private studios where several artists gather for sessions. I enjoy the people who call me to come in every three months. They’re dependable. It never gets too personal, but it’s always fun to see them after a while.
On the other hand, working for the people who get swept up in me as their muse can at once feel more relaxed and have an increased sense of pressure. The more they look, the more they see new lines that amaze them. Or they think of new scenarios to pose me in, week after week.
I get stuck having to wear my hair exactly the same way for months of sessions, and once I was chided for the fact that my hair grows. At times I feel claustrophobic being around the same people for too long (another reason why the variety of the job generally works well for me). Then I begin to resent how much I come to love these people, knowing that one day they’ll drop me and move on to the next model (as they should). Whether or not I’ll get to see them much after that point is left to be determined. When you are an artist, there is little time for friendships. Everyday is devoted to work. This is another cliché’ that gets broken – artists are not lazy, and their quest is somewhat obsessive and heroic for all the obstacles in their way.
Outside of the studio, the social strata present degrees of separation. More well known artists are likely to give you the feeling that you need to take a number to talk to them at art shows. The excessive amounts of time spent in their studio, countless meals eaten together – it’s all for naught when your time as muse is up. The intense connection dissipates over time.
Models have been fighting to be more than just the model since the dawn of figurative art. Before the 20th Century, female art models, dancers, and actors were basically viewed as “whores”. The main motivation of whoring yourself is to gain money and power and find success in the thing you love to do (which usually doesn’t involve seducing ugly old rich men). It’s a way out of poverty for people with assets and aspirations beyond the daily drudgery of life.
It makes sense that throughout history, models have often slept with the artist, especially in cases where the artist is wealthy and socially mobile. Sex can feel like a transfer of power, genius, and a solidifying bond. But in extremes of power imbalance, it often ends badly for the model.
Of Picasso’s models and lovers, overall, their lives ended in complete disrepair. They never recovered. The only one who was a success post-Picasso was Francoise Gilot, who left him of her own accord, knowing that her art career would go nowhere if she continued to live in his shadow.
The model remains as a vague representation of a person. A person we will never truly know. What makes the Mona Lisa famous? No one knows what she’s actually thinking, but whatever it is, her thoughts look very interesting. That’s the trick of being a good model – to always have a curious mind that never stands still within the stillness of your body. I love to be within my brain, barely aware that I am onstage, ignoring intense amounts of physical pain as the warm air of the space heater embraces my body.
I’ve seen thousands of versions of myself in drawings and paintings, and it is rare that any of them really fully capture me. I’m counting about five in my head right now. But that’s not really the point. My body is only a guide to what the artist sees. After so many years at it, I still feel excited to see what people are working on, and feel a sense of surprise when there is a new voice that speaks through the fascinating curves of lines and paint. I don’t think I’ll ever lose that sense of wonder, because I am an artist as well.
For the last year, I’ve been increasing my time and efforts in my painting practice. I knew that painting would come back to me one day. It was all I did for so long, and then went away when I became a writer.
People struggle with the idea of others in more than one role. They are sometimes amazed to see me painting. There is a tug of war between days that I model, days that I paint, and days that I write. Models are never just models. They are poets, actors, burlesque dancers, musicians, singers, and artists. It is the perfect job for the creative person who wants to make their own schedule, be their own boss, work as much or as little as they want to.
Hopefully, the majority of our lot will make something of themselves. I overheard a well-known artist say, “We’ve lost so many models to thinking that they want to be artists. It’s a real problem!” Quite a lot of people would like to see others remain in their known role. It’s up to each of us to make our lives what we feel it should be.
I never stop reaching for greatness. It’s a magical thing to work for people who teach me to go that much farther. Art is a discipline; a playfulness; an openness; an exploration. I get to watch people create from onstage, and then go home and do the same. I’ve found my place in Seattle through my work, and I’m building a sense of community and friendship.
Did I mention that I’ve never met a model that slept with the artist? It wouldn’t bother me if I did. But the point is, it’s a job like any other. Word spreads fast, and we depend on the money to get by. For those that don’t take it seriously, go ahead and fool around. Though trust me, overall, artists aren’t nearly as sexy as people make them out to be. We’re a nerdy lot.