I consider myself an artist and a woman with a feminist sensibility. I also enjoy very much figurative works and working with models in life drawing classes but recently I have been thinking more about life drawing in the more general context of women’s representation, objectification and our relation to women’s bodies.
As I was saying, I love life drawing and made it the main part of my art practice , with an emphasis on body acceptance and diversity. Recently I have been wondering if life drawing and representation of the nude female body can be a tool for empowerment or is that just maintaining an old tradition that largely facilitated the male gaze on attractive young women?
Life drawing as a tool for diversity and body acceptation
The pressure to conform to a certain stereotype of beauty is strong, I see that especially in younger girls exposed to the social media flow of perfect pictures displaying perfect bodies. I think that exposure to life drawing classes can be beneficial, especially for younger girls for a broader acceptance of what beauty can be.
In our life drawing class we are adamant on hiring female and male models and to represent a diversity of body shapes and ages.We also set up a list of guidelines, working with some of our models as to what the life drawing facilitator, artists and model etiquette should be. You can read it here:
I think there is beauty in all body shapes and am not interested in drawing only one type of model. As women we often feel inadequate if the picture reflected in the mirror does not fit the societal ideal of what we should look like, and then we feel the pressure that we have to act on it. Representing a variety of bodies as they are and taking the decision that they deserve to be the subject of fine art that will celebrate diversity is a way to go against that ideology of the unique model.
Nudity and sexuality
I discussed in an older post the idea that some of the problem might come from a sort of confusion or amalgamation of nudity and sexuality.
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In our society, most of the time when we see nudity, it is associated with a sexual context. We are not usually walking around naked , lying down or sitting on a chair like a model will do in life drawing.
This is not the case in all cultures. For example, I am thinking about pictures of bare breasted women in Africa , a natural and traditional way of life in some tribes that only western viewers would think as having a sexual connotation. Travelling to Japan, some of the bath houses required nudity and it is common for families there to take baths together, it is part of the culture.
It does not help also that women’s bodies are still widely used today to sell anything and that women have been historically portrayed as passive objects of desire for the male gaze and often in a sexualized context. Most of the classical nudes are gazing directly at the viewer, outside of the picture plane as he is the reason why the nude female is posing, available and waiting , her availability implying passivity. Women are often depicted as very languid, they don’t have a desire of their own, they are the passive subject of the viewer desires.
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Some life drawing classes play on an ambiguity between life drawing and burlesque, or life drawing and soft porn, blurring a bit the lines by hiring mostly attractive looking young and thin models, in settings like theaters, with props like shoes or masks or costumes. It is totally fine in itself but I see it as something very different from the life drawing class I am co-organizing, it is far away from what we want to do. In our life drawing class we try to stay away from any sexual connotation. In my own work, I also don’t want to use any drawings were the pose could be seen as being suggestive. So what is the problem then?
Is there a problem with nudity?
You could argue that there is no need for the model to be unclothed to be able to pose and for artist to be able to draw, and this is a valid argument. To this I would say that it is important to learn the basis of anatomy to be able to draw accurately the figure, even if that figure is dressed. That nudity is a natural state, the one we were born into and that it should not be seen as an embarrassment, something obscene or a sign of weakness, for many women it can be a part of everyday life and a path to self-acceptation and strength.
We are constantly in awe of nature and our own bodies are part of nature. I also like that the state of nudity makes a drawing timeless if you exclude some contemporary body modifications like tattoos, it speak about what it means to be human.
The stage and the pose
I think for me some uneasiness comes from the fact that the model is on a stage, posing for an audience, a situation that echoes objectification of women, or the fact that women have been long seen as a beautiful thing to look at. To hold a pose means not to move and that also echoes the stereotype of the female as being passive even though it is the same for our male models. I am not saying that holding a pose is a passive action, and it is far from being easy, it is more like an exercise in strength and concentration the way yoga is, but a long pose requires a model to stay in a pose that can suggest rest and therefore some kind of passivity.
But then, this is part of the nature of drawing, I don’t think drawing is the best medium to convey movement or action, movies are doing that much better, when you want to draw someone or something, it is always better if your subject doesn’t move. I was very aware of that when trying to draw my kids as toddlers 🙂
Art in general is also a process of objectification. After all you choose a complex subject and choose to represent only certain parts of it through editing, you are also painting or drawing only the visible appearance of your subject, only the book cover so to speak. And you are painting or drawing for an audience that can look at your representation or abstraction of the world in contemplation of that art object.
The satisfaction of being seen
I also think that there is a satisfaction that can be taken at being looked at attentively, the artists are looking at the model in a life drawing class, in acceptation of who you are, how you look, without judgement. As a woman over 40 and part of that “invisible crowd”, I can see how being looked at with acceptation is a pleasant feeling that can make you feel good about yourself.
Some life drawing models talk about the experience of posing as being empowering and looking at the drawings in a way is seeing their body through the eyes of different artists. We are our harshest critic, and this turns out often to be a very positive experience.
Nude art implies an awareness of being seen by a spectator, in the settings of the class or on a drawing or painting. I think the point here is that nudity can be empowering, the same way modesty can be and we might have to accept both possibilities. It is a complex issue and the key here is to leave a choice to women without being judgmental: You can take off your clothes if you want to and you can also decide not to. The poses the model will be asked or will choose to take matters in that regard, they can take poses that echoes positions of seduction or they can take poses conveying the position of owning your own body.
Nudity has been frequently used in a feminist context as a political tool, like the group Femen who uses nudity to gain attention to political issues of gender equality and patriarchy. Nudity in the context of political activism here is there to show that no, the female body is not obscene and it is also not there only to be the property of men or controlled by men
I also think that life drawing can be exploitative in certain conditions (if the model is not respected, if the class wants to hire only attractive models) as much as it can be empowering (when the model and the artists cooperate creatively in the choices of poses and when the model is respected).