Sunday, 2 August 2009

The Death of Life Drawing

“It’s absolute balls to talk about drawing as creative. It’s a question of being receptive. -John Berger

Recently Channel 4 have screened a series of five programmes (Life Class: Today’s Nude) which invite viewers to dig out a pencil and paper and draw alongside five different artists: Gary Hume, Judy Purbeck, Humphrey Ocean, Maggie Hambling and John Berger. I watched all the programmes on 4 On Demand in the hope of hearing something new, different or radical about life drawing, but I have to say that there wasn’t a great deal on offer.

What I did find interesting though, was just how little John Berger delved into the problematics of life drawing. Yes he talked about the poetics and this is what we have come to expect from Berger, but considering his influential Ways of Seeing in which he asks us to consider what he arranges “but be skeptical of it” maybe it’s not too much to hope that he might have opened up the debate a little more. Perhaps this is one of the drawbacks of simply being a contributor to a series rather than its “arranger”, yet I think there’s a lot we can gain from considering (i.e. being sceptical about) what was presented in the five programmes.

Everyone except Berger worked in a traditional artist’s studio setting. Berger, being predominantly a writer and critic and therefore less likely to use a studio, was set up in a photo/video studio with camera gear and black backdrop. I’m very sure he was well aware of the influence this setting would have over our understanding of the context, especially in light of his longstanding scrutiny of the dominance of photographic images and their ability to be reproduced and disseminated.

Of all the “artists” Berger was the only one who appeared to have any real discussion with his model and he also made a particular point of saying that he considers life drawing to be a collaborative process. This contrasted starkly with the Gary Hume episode in particular. Whilst Hume had a couple of fairly interesting things to say about the process of drawing what struck me most was the fact that his model was clearly unknown to him before she arrived. Kirsten Varley was introduced as a “fashion model” – tall, slim, large breasts, long curly hair etc - and it was patently obvious that he had practically (if not actually) picked her out of a men’s magazine as some kind of trophy rather than for any genuinely creative purpose. If we had any sneaking suspicions about Hume’s fawning attitude towards the fashion industry, then this utterly confirmed them.

As I’ve already mentioned, Berger made a gesture of being seen to discuss his drawing with his model both before and after the session and it’s clear that he wanted us to be aware that he considered Maria Muñoz as an individual. But despite this, he comes across clearly as the “Artist”, the active agent and the commanding voice describing what is going on in “his” mind. Maria Muñoz, a dancer by profession, was literally frozen on the spot, her voice was barely if ever heard and her professional physical voice, which requires motion and duration to express itself, was reduced to a mere phantom presence.

But, of course, this is what life drawing does – it has an artist who is active and a model who is ostensibly passive: who poses. Certainly, to some extent, posing is an active process; in fact the longer the pose, the more determination and concentration the physical act of staying still actually requires but this is a static action performed for the visual scrutiny (gaze) of others who, wittingly or unwittingly, manipulate, control and ultimately own these representations and no amount of “action” on the part of the model can really change this unequal balance of power.

But let’s leave this inequality aside for a moment, after all, models get paid for what they do (paltry though it is) and there are lots other ways to make a living – a number of which are significantly more exploitative than being a life model.

So what’s the actual value of life drawing over other types of drawing?

One significant aspect that was not discussed or even mentioned in Life Class: Today’s Nude is the unique seriousness of life drawing. Anyone who has ever participated in a life class will remember the tension of their first experience of life drawing. Like many people in tense or serious situations, some students feel an urge to giggle (which is most often resisted of course), others find it difficult to look at the model and almost everyone feels uncomfortable. Yet very quickly the process of normalisation begins: the model takes their pose, the students remain silent but attentive (each one caught up in their own private cognitive dissonance) but most importantly, the tutor dispels the tension by speaking with professional assurance and by giving the students not just the permission but the actual instruction to look at the model and to translate this looking into studied drawing. By the time a few lines have been drawn (both literally and figuratively) the students are absorbed into what seems like just a typical day at art school.

But this process of normalisation is never entirely complete. Despite the veneer of studious contemplation and creative intent, the fact remains that such situations are highly charged. In the centre of the room, a naked human being stands, sits or lies motionless, surrounded by a group of students peering at every inch of their exposed flesh. Their facial expression, hand gestures, posture, skin surfaces, muscular tensions, and underlying bone structure are all visually charted, captured, fixed and consumed. With the possible exception of medical examination and sexual fascination, no other circumstance involves such deliberate and concentrated attention to the naked presence of another human being. This tension is extremely fragile, since at its heart is a singularly exposed individual. It is therefore precisely this fragility that makes life drawing such a serious business – a seriousness that only the most formal exam situation can approach in terms of demanding respectful disciplined attention.

When I began writing this response to Life Class: Today’s Nude I had the intention of focusing my attention on the anachronism that is life drawing. It turns out though, that after consideration, I feel that life classes have some real value, not least of which that they offer artists one of the only (possibly THE only) real antidote to the sanitised, cosmetically and digitally enhanced images of bodies we are continually fed through fashion, advertising and the media.

There is something inherently dignified about the naked human body, no matter its age, weight, race, gender athleticism or distinct lack thereof. The constant sexualisation of the human body through fashion, advertising and the media does little to diminish this dignity but in its perpetuation of highly exclusive, unattainable images of the body it skews our sense of the very bodies we inhabit. This is a deeply problematic issue with far reaching social, psychological, and economic consequences. It also happens to be the formidable context in which life classes continue to exist and one which life drawing itself struggles to address as a medium, but perhaps not as an experience: as a process of active critical contemplation as opposed to simply one of observation and markmaking.

6 comments:

Brian said...

I think the important thing here, Jim, is that the discipline of drawing is useful not only as a 'skill', but as a way of looking: that is why it has survived in some (not all) art schools. The focus of attention on what is an extremely complex and difficult subject - the human form - concentrates the critical eye and mind. And what could be more contextual or closer to mankind's sensibilities than that form - it cannot, after all, become an anachronism in itself, even if ways of approaching it artistically change radically. So I think it will remain a valid subject for some time to come, and if so it must be observed - if not not only by drawing, then by film, photography and so on. It contains and expresses so much of what is our human existence. The dignity of the model and the subtle violation of their person may be a question that ought to be considered more ... try as we might to see the situation as 'normal'. And this may be a relic of enlightenment thought? Perhaps models should be paid a lot more in recognition of what they are giving to the rest of us.

J. Hamlyn said...

Hi Brian,
Thanks for the really thought provoking comment. You’re absolutely right that drawing is ‘another way of looking’ and a very immediately available one – you just need a markmaking implement and a surface to draw upon and there you go. Drawing itself encompasses a huge range of media, each of which forms its own way of looking in the same way that each medium, whether film, photography, sculpture, dance or writing is a way of converting our impressions of the world into shareable form.

You’re also quite right to point out that that the human form can never become an anachronism – that’s a fascinating thought but one I feel is somehow confounded by the complex context within which the 21st century body is situated. It seems to me that the body is indeed becoming an anachronism, one that cosmetic surgery, fitness fanaticism and numerous appendages seek to enhance, control and supersede. But even in the historical context the body has always been a battlefield of manipulation, intervention, disease and trauma.

I take your point about drawing concentrating the critical eye and mind but I’m not so sure that this idea of “critical” is really the discerning thing we might like it to be. When we talk of being critical in the context of life drawing it tends to mean exclusively the appreciation and analysis of formal values and relationships. It rarely, if ever strays, into an analysis of the nature of the human form in the wider social/political/environmental/gendered sphere. But perhaps that would be to disrupt the fragile equilibrium of the life room with yet another kind of intervention (of the mind) and to ‘draw’ attention away from the discipline of studied observation and the attempt to focus the hand and eye on a subject (actually an object in this instance) that really matters.

Brian said...

Jim, you are quite right about the problems facing the body in today’s world. I think in your first post you touched upon the value that life-drawing could have in this respect - as an alternative and more reflective way of seeing the body. And “battlefield” is a nice word: in another way the body is indeed the ‘field’ or ‘site’ of our life’s story - a story which to some extent becomes etched into its evolving form.

By “critical eye and mind” I did mean, of course, the decision-making that goes into the process of drawing; but also a constant re-assessment of one’s own vision, pre-conceived notions, first impressions, that comes close to criticality of the intellectual kind, and seems to spring from the same source. I have always felt that art is a form of self-discovery, as much as discovery of the subject, or the artwork.

The idea of seeing the model as an 'object' is perhaps misleading: certainly a certain detachment is necessary to study 'it' ... and I agree there is an issue here, which surprisingly has more to do with a rational, somewhat scientific approach, that may have begun as early as Ancient Greece, and is in tune with the anatomy class and dissection theatre of the post-enlightenment West.

I suppose the student may take what he or she has learned from the life-room, and if inspired apply it in a wider external context - and perhaps deal with some of the issues you mentioned, which are indeed troubling. In that respect, I personally feel that it is a mistake to stray too far from Nature, which seems to have provided us with much of (if not everything) that we need. And aging and death might be better seen as a natural, and normal, part of life. But ignorance knows no bounds, and we are all susceptible to it: hence the problems, which the critical outlook you advocate can help to discern - which is half the battle, perhaps?

J. Hamlyn said...

True, perhaps the idea of the model as an object is a little misleading. I guess I was trying to raise yet another issue on that fascinating battlefield that is life drawing. The convention though is ‘model’ of course and that isn’t really much better… though to be a ‘model human being’ might switch things around nicely.

Chris Fraser said...

An interesting post, thanks. It's good to keep a critical discourse about something that is so widely accepted and rarely challenged.

I've been to many life drawing classes in Helsinki where the life model seems to be running the show. I like this because it gives immediate presence to the model and respect from the people observing. However, they rarely introduce themselves.

The best life drawing classes I took part in where in college where we had a real collaboration, discussion and friendship with the model.

J. Hamlyn said...

Thanks Chris. I very much like the idea of the model running the show. Did it make a difference to the work produced I wonder?

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