On Painting the Nude
Date: Thursday, October 06 2005
On Painting the Nude
Canada has great painters, but it doesn’t have, to my knowledge, great painters of the nude. The reason that is so might keep us inquiring and theorizing for a long time. But that isn’t our subject. It’s the painting of the nude, which – as Kenneth Clark makes clear in his brilliant book on the subject – is not to be confused with the naked figure. The difference is not always easy to explain, and it may be that whatever else the nude is, it is also a work of art. Well, you say, that’s a clarification that isn’t very clear.
The nude is not the naked figure. It’s something different, though, of course, also naked. And for those of us who experiment painting the nude (of both sexes) the “something different” is everything that matters.
Painters of the nude do (and have done) several things. (Notice they can’t be called “nude painters” or some people will believe they undress to paint.) We find they haven’t just stolen from the past, they’ve looted it, even to the point of copying almost exactly other peoples’ nudes and then shaping a few differences to disguise the theft. Painters of the nude are obviously looking for something very clear to them, and they’ll go back centuries and rifle other people’s work to get that “something”.
They usually start off, moreover, faithfully going to “life drawing classes”, which means classes where a nude model poses for “artists”. The words used are a little strange. If you paint a bowl of fruit, the result is called a “still life”. Life that is still? But when you draw a nude model (or paint from the model), he or she usually isn’t moving either but is definitely not a still life. I think we will see why farther on.
My first “life drawing” class took place at Toronto’s Hart House. The same model appeared for each session and so became, in a way, familiar to the male “artists” who made up the class. About five years later I met a woman at an evening party in Edmonton, Alberta, who I felt certain I knew. But I couldn’t for the life of me remember her name or where we had met.
She had worked at Mr.Smith’s, the couturier in Toronto’s Old Village, she told me. Had I been there? I had been to the village, certainly. But not to Mr. Smith’s. And so it went until, finally, she asked that if by chance I had attended the Hart House life drawing class. Then it all became clear to me.
I was able to reply, honestly, “I’m sorry. I didn’t recognize you with your clothes on”.
Painters of the nude are also well known for falling in love with their models, painting them – sometimes again and again, and seducing them. (Male painters, that is. If female painters of the nude have done that, I haven’t seen the historical records. But female painters haven’t been liberated into painting the male nude until recently, relatively speaking. Good manners, moreover, wouldn’t let one speculate about the behaviour of female painters of the nude with models of their own sex.)
Painters of the nude often become bored with “life drawing” sessions unless they can have a good deal of control over model choice and studio conditions – which doesn’t happen frequently. And, when they are really good artists, they learn what every painter of the nude must know – that a nude model isn’t necessary for painting the nude.
Leonardo da Vinci (born in 1452) obviously used himself as a nude model, as many artists have done since. Asked why they have painted self-portraits in the nude quite frequently, many artists reply:“because the model is always available, is cooperative, doesn’t sulk, and charges nothing for posing”.
But nude self-portraiture is still working from a model, and, as I said: “what every painter of the nude must know is that a nude model isn’t necessary for painting the nude.” Why is that so? Because a very large number of painters of the nude paint what is in their heads not what is sitting in front of them as model. A model’s arrangement of limbs might help the painter, but the model is really incidental, quite often.
A story is told about Auguste Renoir to make the point. He had a friend with a wife who was thin as a rail and not gifted with hip or bosom. Would Renoir paint her in the nude? Of course he would. When the painting was finished, Renoir had turned his friend’s wife into a “Renoir” – plump, full-bosomed, ripe as a peach, and tantalizingly curvaceous.
If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, the nude is very often in the mind of the painter of the nude. And so a truth may be revealed about work among the greatest (but of course not all) painters of the nude. They discover, invent, create, come upon a nude that has never existed in this world but which people believe is real, natural, factual.
Millions of people have viewed the famous “grande Odalisque” by Ingres which is hanging in the Louvre in Paris. They believe – most of them – they are looking at an excellent portrait of the model. And so, in a way, they are. But Ingres’ great nude is said to have a backbone which is about 18 inches longer than any normal woman could possibly have. And it is that “creation” into the portrayal which contributes to the viewer’s sense that here is the very perfect picture of woman who is leopard-like in her lithe beauty.
Just as Paul Cezanne sought to paint “the appleness of apples”, so many painters of the nude seek to paint “the nudeness of the nude”, “the femaleness of the female”, “the maleness of the male” “the youthfulness of youth”. They attempt to catch a something that we never associate with the naked figure. And, moreover, as the concept fixes itself in the mind of the artist and as the attempt is to catch something larger than individual life (but to do it through the individual nude), then a model becomes less necessary, sometimes even intrusive.
Picasso’s nudes are obviously born from Picasso’s vision, as Renoir’s, Modigliani’s ,and so on, are also born from individual vision. Emily Carr’s coastal forests are always depicted through her unique vision, but they also fix the idea of coastal forest in the minds of most people who look at them. The nudes of the artists mentioned (and others) define what nude is for their perceivers. If the perceiver had to look at naked figures, he or she would probably draw back, alarmed and unhappy. That’s how much “the nude” has taken over our consciousness and told us what the unadorned human body is like.
To many reasonable people, painting the nude is completely unnecessary, foolish, salacious, provocative, embarrassing, and sinful. But artists have painted the nude – in one way of another – almost since the beginning of art. They do so because we are endlessly captivated by what William Blake called “the human form divine” (and I suspect Blake never used a live model).
We are also intrigued by what is called “the beautiful” which some art theorists claim always refers back in some way to the human form. And we are intrigued by life itself which, of course, we cannot help thinking of very often as “human life”. And so calling a class which is drawing from a nude model a “life drawing class” is probably more correct that we at first believed.
Then there is almost the most surprising thing of all about painting the nude – a discovery that others may have come upon without a second thought. But surely it will be news to some. No matter how superb the rendering of the nude is (once again, male or female), no matter how exquisite the flesh tones, the play of light and shadow over the figure, the rightness of composition, or any of the other things we think about when considering the idea of “the nude”, there is something else which conditions our response.
It is the face of the nude and the expression upon the face – something that doesn’t even occur to us usually when we think abstractly of “the nude”.
That may mean we are so used to the silent language of facial expression that we unconsciously measure our assessment of the rest of the body by what we read on the face – in art as well as in life.
It may mean, as well, that - even unknown to the painter – he or she supplies the body of the nude as a back-up, a reinforcement, an underscoring of what the face is and is saying to us. And so precisely as with the clothed figure – whether in rags or in rich brocades – the body the painter of the nude attaches to the face may be there to complete a study of character, of essence, of spirit and not, primarily, of flesh.
Perhaps that explains why when people call paintings of the nude pornographic or sinful, the artist can only shrug his or her shoulders and say nothing. Maybe that, too, is why we insist upon a difference between “the nude” and “the naked”.