During my varied and restless working life I’ve undertaken many roles from market stall holder to housing manager and I like to think, even if I didn’t always enjoy myself at the time, that I’ve gained something from all of them. One of the more unusual jobs I’ve taken on, and one that I suspect many people would hesitate to accept or even consider, has been that of life model, or slightly more grandly, artists’ model. How and why did I get into that you may well ask.
The figure has always been central to Western art, ever since it’s been a conscious undertaking, and it’s representation reached its earliest glory in Classical Greek statuary. The classical world lacked the prurience which, no doubt under the moral influence of the monotheistic religions, permeates modern attitudes to nudity, and its beauty and actuality were part of everyday life, and was both taken for granted and celebrated.
Classical Greek nude figures tend to represent the gods and other mythical beings and, at their best, possess a physical fluidity which has often been imitated, but rarely equalled. The Romans were great admirers of the Greek aesthetic, and the growth of their empire served to spread its influence throughout all the areas where they attained military and political dominance, and a little beyond. Much of the best statuary to be found in the Roman world was the work of Greek sculptors, and that which was not, continued to owe them a debt.
Although Greek artistic sensibilities were very influential in the Roman world, the imperatives of empire and the need to maintain control over a disparate collection of peoples, which, even at the height of Roman dominance, could never be assured, necessitated a parallel aesthetic which was wholly Roman in nature. Whilst Greek and Greek influenced sculpture dominated the private homes of the wealthy, and places like the baths where people gathered for leisure, the politically important public areas featured grand likenesses of the emperors, gods all, prominent senators, and the successful generals on whom Rome relied for its wealth and security. Stately figures in togas or full military regalia gazed down severely, or sometimes beneficently, on the populace of Rome and other major towns, to the greater glory of empire, and the aggrandisement of the elite.
This kind of civic statuary has been very influential across Europe in modern times, particularly from the late 18th century onwards, and one can see many examples of more modern origin which consciously ape those Roman originals. The one aspect of Roman civic sculpture that has not been copied, however, is that of the statesmanlike nude.
In the Museum of Naples there are a pair of statues of the Emperor Hadrian, similarly posed, and both slightly larger than life. One shows him in full military gear and the other is an anatomically correct nude. No sign of a paunch, or any other human blemish, Hadrian was clearly keen to be portrayed not just as a great soldier and statesman but also as a fine figure of a man! The nude figure was not intended for purely personal satisfaction and self-admiration, and not just for a small circle of intimates, but was a public sculpture intended for the eyes of the populace in general who, one assumes, were expected to regard it with awe.
Nudity in the Roman world, as in the Greek, was clearly not limited to the bedroom or the baths. Whilst there is much about Roman culture which would seem, to the modern eye, to be brutal or simply grotesque, this open acceptance of nudity seems to me to be refreshingly healthy and, the lack of blemishes notwithstanding, honest. Having said that, I’m not sure I’m ready to embrace nude statues of Tony Blair, Margaret Thatcher or Winston Churchill, even though the latter was purportedly very comfortable with his own nudity. But maybe that’s just my problem!
I have long had an interest in ancient Greek and Roman culture and also a passion for Western Art. It could be that my study of ancient cultures together with my exposure to Impressionism, Surrealism and Dada, were triggers for my realisation that reality could be other than that espoused during my Protestant upbringing. These studies certainly gave me a feeling of excitement and access to many notions which were novel to me.
I never got into creating sculpture, but I became a keen amateur painter and student of the so-called schools of artistic thought. Beginning in resolutely figurative mode, I then veered further and further into abstraction, and patterns loosely derived from mathematical formulae and geometric distortion. By the time I reached my mid-twenties I was beginning to wonder whether I had strayed so far from what is that I had entered a blind alley, or even, that I was a complete charlatan in my artistic efforts. I decided, in consequence, that now was the time that I should reassess my skills, and also find out whether I still had the ability to draw.
With this in mind I signed up for a life drawing class at a local adult education college. I was a little out of practice but I could still do it!
This was the first time I’d attempted life drawing and, with my sheltered Protestant background, I have to admit that I shared some of the prurient attitude to nudity I have already mentioned. It seemed to me then, as it does now, that viewing simple nakedness through the distorted glasses of a half understood, but powerful, moral imperative, was to make ugly what was both natural and beautiful. It certainly made me self-conscious about my own body and awkward when faced with the nakedness of others. Being naked in the showers after a games lesson, for the first time, at the age of eleven, was very embarrassing and it took me many years to get over those negative feelings.
In a life drawing session you quickly lose any silly feelings though and, after a few minutes, no matter if you find the sitter as sexy as hell, you are very soon thinking only about lines, planes, light and shade. It’s just a lot more interesting than, say, drawing a table and chairs, and a lot more challenging.
At about the same time as I enrolled for the life drawing class, I met a couple called Andrew and Sarah, both of whom were artists and, through them, a few others on the fringes of the London art scene. I certainly admired some of their work and, as was my habit with any creative group new to me, I wished to get more involved but lacked the confidence to show them any of my own work.
I went round to dinner at Andrew and Sarah’s one day and checked out some of the pieces they were working on, admiring a nude that Sarah had almost completed of Andrew. She was delighted I liked it.
“Thanks Mark! I’m really pleased with how that one’s turning out too! I’d really like you to sit for me sometime too! I don’t mean you have to be nude of course!”
I liked the idea of sitting for a painting, paused over her last comment, and then bit the bullet.
“I don’t mind. You can paint or draw me clothed or nude – whichever you like.”
“Really? It’d be great if you’d sit for me nude. We’ll have to sort out a time!”
And lest you be under the impression that this was all about sneaky chat-up lines, Andrew was busy making coffee next to me and was just as enthusiastic.
Having committed myself I wondered why I had agreed in the first place. I concluded partly because I wanted to be involved, but also because I wanted to throw off that self-consciousness that had been dogging me. After all, lots of people have worked as artists’ models, there’s nothing wrong with that, and so why not me?
I sat for Sarah a few days later, I was very good at staying still, and I was soon relaxed and we chatted as she worked. From her point of view, the session was not a success as she was not happy with what she had produced. For me it was a liberating experience and my previous issues with my body vanished.
Having sat once and quite enjoyed it, I decided I might be prepared to do it again, so I contacted various colleges and adult education classes and, very soon, found myself with a steady flow of work. It’s not an unskilled job as you have to be able to keep still and gauge what positions you can manage given the length of a particular pose. Poses for me varied from one minute to one day (with breaks of course!), and every duration presented its own challenges. It was also necessary to be reasonably assertive with the tutors, most of whom had never modelled and, therefore, didn’t know what was possible and reasonable to ask. Those who were least reasonable, I would chose not to work with again.
I actually learned quite a lot about art during these sessions and, at the end of a session, I was always keen to check out the work of the students to see what the tutor had been talking about as he went around advising. Some of the students were surprisingly unskilled as artists, and this made me wonder about entrance levels for some of the colleges, but a few were remarkably good. I don’t think I’ll ever get one of my own pieces in a prestigious gallery but, I sometimes wonder, maybe some of those guys made it and at least my likeness might appear on some hallowed wall.
Anyway, life modelling isn’t as terrifying as you might think, is an essential ingredient in the production of art and the training of students, and can be an interesting occupation. A beautiful body is not a prerequisite but the ability to stay still is! So why not try it if you have the nerve!