Demystifying The Nude

April 27, 2014 § 1 Comment

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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.

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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.

My Life As An Art Model

November 1, 2012 § Leave a comment

You may remember that I wrote a post a while back about making my living as an Art Model.  I’ve been modeling now for the past eighteen months, and I actually receive more work than I can handle.  It’s strange that all of my previous jobs gave me anxiety, but for some reason being naked on a stage in front of twenty people totally relaxes me.  I feel safe up there, in the artist’s appreciation and quiet meditation on the human form.

Last Sunday night I went to my first studio as an artist.  I actually felt nervous to be crossing over to the other side.  Drawing was an awkward struggle, and I wanted to loosen up my hand.  The model was beautiful, and it was torture attempting to draw her perfect lines.  She is much shorter and curvier than I am, so it was difficult for me to get her proportions just right.  But now, I am hooked.

In high school and early college, I thought that I would be an artist.  I was selling paintings and winning contests, and the head of the art department was upset when I decided not to major in art.  I thought the fashion business could be a more dependable income, but the industry wasn’t for me.  Instead, writing chose me, and since college, I’ve worked to support my craft.  But I’ve never stopped doing little art projects here and there.

As an Art Model, I rarely meet people outside of the art world that can really comprehend what I do.  The job makes my family slightly uncomfortable, and they don’t want to see the art that comes out of my collaboration with the artist, at least not the figure studies.  My dad even just asked me, “Are you still doing that?”  This after I told him that I’m booked solid through January.

At a party last summer I told an acquaintance that figure artists are often able to sell their work to wineries since wineries want to be aligned with European tastes.  The woman replied, “Oh great, then your friends will see you naked!”

If that bothered me, I wouldn’t be doing this.  Most funny, is that she tends to hang out with the sex-positive crowd, and you would think she would be more relaxed.

My liberal friend from my conservative college days responded by saying, “Oh, I see you’re still objectifying yourself.”

It gave me meditation on the word ‘objectify’ – a word that does not take place within, but without, a choice of the viewer, and not the viewed.

 Definition of OBJECTIFY

1: to treat as an object or cause to have objective reality

2: to give expression to (as an abstract notion, feeling, or ideal) in a form that can be experienced by others <it is the essence of the fairy tale to objectify differing facets of the child’s emotional experience — John Updike>

I could never objectify myself since it would be impossible to experience my own self as an object.  I am within, not without.  It is the viewer’s benefit to see the human form as an object.  In their study they can come to a greater understanding of our own structure.  Not just physically, but spiritually, emotionally, mentally.

People also don’t realize I actually make money as an Art Model.  They see it as a funny little hobby.  They always assume that because I’m a wife without a traditional job, I’m just gadding about, living off my husband’s income.  Besides food and housing, we don’t share our money.  Modeling pays my bills.

I love being an Art Model for the feeling of collaboration.  I love that I see it from both angles as a model and an artist.  I love the unknown – the moments where an artist’s work blows me away or surprises me, or when they see a person that I don’t look like at all.

“’Thereness’ follows nothingness.  It is impossible to premeditate.  It is to do with the collaboration of the sitter, …  but also to do with the disappearance of the sitter the moment the image emerges (Berger, 78).”

In John Berger’s book “The Shape of a Pocket,” he meditates on art and different artists throughout history.  But it was his discussion on the mystery of the model that most fascinated me, whether the model is a building, an object, or a person.

“The ‘sitter’ is at first here and now.  Then she disappears and (sometimes) comes back there, inseparable from every mark on the painting.

After she has ‘disappeared’ a drawing or two are the only clues about where she may have gone.  And of course, sometimes they’re not enough, and she never comes back (Berger, 80-81).”

An artist I work for said that she felt invisible when she stopped modeling.  I think I began modeling for the same exact reason.  I can’t say that now I feel seen, because much of what there is to see is within.  Sometimes people see that, sometimes they don’t.  But I see my body differently than I did before.  There is no shame in it, no discomfort.  I see it as an instrument.  I train it to be strong in the pose.  I sink into the physical pain for long periods of time, and travel through my thoughts.  Then eventually I come back again, and slip into my robe.

Works of art stay within my mind for years.  If I love them, I never forget them.  Sometimes I even think about how I can recreate them.  I dream about the works.  They become a part of my subconciousness.  They can even change my life.  These images go way beyond what anyone in the media can toss up on us.

“…  the media surround people with faces.  The faces harangue ceaselessly by provoking envy, new appetites, ambition or, occasionally, pity combined with a sense of impotence (Berger, 58).”

Art doesn’t speak as much as it feels, unless, of course, it’s propaganda.

Watching those who are adept with the charcoal, capturing every single muscle as though they have been trained by Leonardo Da Vinci, gives me strength to go on feeling clumsy and awkward until there is some kind of breakthrough.

“Real drawing is a constant question, is a clumsiness, which is a form of hospitality towards what is being drawn.  And, such hospitality once offered, the collaboration may sometimes begin (Berger, 75).”

It is a pleasure to be clumsy as an artist, and graceful as a model.  The two balance each other out.

My problem with past jobs was the same exact problem with the media.  I always felt harangued, pitied, made to feel envious, impotent.  But as an Art Model, I can just be.  No one is asking more of me than my perfect stillness.  While the timer is ticking, I solve all of my problems, envision plans, come up with titles and new writing ideas, and sometimes let my emotions fall into a song playing on the stereo.  While somewhere off in the distance, artists struggle along over the lines of my body and the colors of my form.

 

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