I’ve been asked to put on a series of life drawing sessions for drawing strand students. This has of course raised several contentious issues, not least of which has been that often posed question, “What place has life drawing in the modern art school curriculum?” The problem is that as an activity it carries a hell of a lot of baggage. The study of fine art is associated with a particular set of behaviours and attitudes that have evolved over the years. These attitudes come with a complicated history, a history that directly impacts on the idea of the life class. For instance the history of Modernism begins with a direct refusal (the Salon de Refusés: 1863) of and rejection of the modes and practices of the academy and academy trained artists. The life room was an integral part of a classical art training and it presupposed that an artist needed a certain skill-set in order to develop a recognised practice. Modernism swept these ideas away and the focus was now on the development of a ‘signature’ or personal practice that did not rely on a set of agreed conventions. The position of the human figure as the dominant subject was questioned and as artists opened out new territories to explore, the figure became just one of many possible subjects. During the 1970s the practice was further questioned, this time due to much wider sociological issues. Most of the unclothed images of human beings within Western Art history dealt with the naked female figure. Women started to question what this was about, and several feminist writers pointed out that artists (mainly male of course) still making images of naked women were often doing so without any real understanding that as a practice it was loaded with complex aesthetic, moral and most of all voyeuristic connotations. The concept of the male gaze was introduced into what was then current theoretical debate and it became hard to justify life drawing as an objective practice. The politics of the life room were unpicked and often seen to be unsavoury, the boundaries between serious art and smut were hotly debated and for many artists the life room started to represent not only an out of date pre-Modernist practice, but also a particularly suspicious arena within which slightly dubious patriarchal conventions still held sway.
However here I am about to re-introduce life-drawing into the curriculum. Why? The conventional argument would be that drawing from the figure helps students to develop observational skills, skills that can then be applied to the drawing of anything. Why the human figure? Because it is so subtle and complex in its organisation and because as humans ourselves we are hyper aware of subtle distinctions in relation to the bodily form of others and to the distribution of its parts and how these effect our awareness of emotional resonance and non-verbal communication. I.e. that we can approach the figure like a doctor, and objectively study its proportions and muscle structure, that we can build up a catalogue of poses that can help us think about how the body effects communication and how a stance or pose can signify perhaps unease or anger.
All perhaps true, but why not work from a clothed figure every week? Clothing is a key form of human communication and is inseparable from how we develop our individual body language. (We will in fact sometimes be working from the clothed figure, but not all the time) The situation is very artificial; a group of 15 to 20 clothed people surround one naked figure (this will be sometimes male and sometimes female) and stare at them for up to 2 hours at a time. In normal life if anyone stares at you for more than 2 minutes you might think there is something wrong. The models will ‘allow’ a whole group of people to stare at them, they are paid to do what is asked, whilst of course bearing in mind the ‘decorum’ of the life-room.
Is it actually possible to eliminate the emotive frission that the situation engenders? I don’t think so. So I am proposing to spend several evenings walking and talking and pointing things out about measurement, creating a language of form, finding mark equivalents for the texture of skin, the way muscle wraps around bone, finding a dynamic composition that can reflect the way balance is maintained while the figure holds a contrapposto position etc. etc. And yet at the same time trying to make everyone aware of that strange condition called the life-room and what it represents. Trying to make students aware of their own emotional engagement with the situation and how this too can be built into their image making.
This series of sessions will be balanced upon a dangerous pedagogic tightrope. Not the least problem being the skill issue. It takes approximately 10,000 hours of practice to master a skill. If a student attends every session they will have done 16 hours drawing. Therefore expectations as to the raising of personal skill levels might not be met. This is probably the most potent art school ‘myth’ that surrounds the life room, the one of skill. Skill in drawing in particular and my most serious question in relation to the life room is perhaps this, what skills are we really developing here?
There are the motor skills of hand/eye control. The skills associated with getting to understand your drawing medium, how ink flows or how tone can be gradually built using a controlled pencil hatching. There are the skills associated with expression, recognizing when a particular mark quality has the potential to carry a certain emotional significance etc. However the skills associated with self-awareness and reflection may be even more important. A growing awareness of how posture carries meaning or how gesture is used as body language. These observations coupled with an understanding of the artificial environment of the life-room and what this itself signifies may have a longer lasting effect on an individual than the actual practice of drawing. Whatever approach is seen to be of value, there is a rich and still vital arena for exploration here and this is why I have agreed to host these sessions. As long as everyone is open minded and engaged as to the possibilities of the situation they will I hope gain a heightened awareness of how the human body is used as a vehicle for communication. Yes it is a physical object, an object that has an internal structure of fluids and bone and muscles, an object with a particularly fascinating surface of skin and hair and cartilage. But this is also about a particular confrontation with a human being, someone making a living, enacting out their part in a drama that has a long history and whoever takes part in this engagement is also acting out their part, whether it is myself as the life tutor or a student hiding behind their drawing board because they are slightly nervous about their drawing skills. This is as I pointed out at the beginning of this post a charged and contentious arena, but that is not an argument I believe to therefore avoid it, only another argument to re-enter the arena and create another and perhaps all the more richer response.