Thanks to the Independent and Daily Mail newspapers I now know that Channel Four are going to be running a five part series about life drawing during the Summer. Initially I thought they’d probably get someone like Alan Carr or Justin Lee Colins to present it but this is apparently going to be a serious treatment and will be shown at 6 oclock for five consecutive evenings in July, although there’s already been a lot of “educational” nudity on tv lately so I guess we’ll have to wait and see. The articles focus on the channel’s past history of provocative tv programming, how life drawing has fallen from favour and is no longer taught in a lot of art colleges and also why it’s proper art and not just a bunch of people staring at ladies without any clothes on. Or something.
As someone who runs a life drawing class I have a bit of sympathy with those people who question the need for nudes. I’ve taught a few figure drawing classes for beginners where the model has been partially clothed and in my opinion as long as you see how most of the bits and pieces connect with each other I think it’s a pretty valid excercise. At various times men have been required to wear loin clothes and women masks to protect their modesty so nudity is not actually a given. The following is from the excellent “Masters and Pupils-The Artistic Succession from Perugino to Manet” by Gert-Rudolf Flick” and is worth quoting at length.

“If male models were sometimes hard to come by, it was even more difficult to find women who were willing to pose, especially in the nude. Indeed, female nude models only became the norm in the last decades of the nineteenth century, which is remarkable given the importance of life drawing in the Western tradition, and the centrality of the female nude in Renaissance and post-Renaissance painting. The availability of drawing from the female nude remained so unusual, indeed, that when William Hogarth re-founded the St Martin’s Lane Academy in London in 1735, the regular presence of a female model, and the chance to draw ‘the naked’, was one of his prime means of promotion.
Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Bologna might perhaps be perceived as in some respects a provincial centre, but even, in larger cities laws were sometimes enacted forbidding women to pose nude. In the Accademia di S Luca in Rome, for example, only male models could pose without clothes. For a woman it was strictly forbidden to pose nude, or even clothed, and a fine of 10 scudi was imposed for each violation. To overcome this problem Leonardo da Vinci had already recommended working from drawings of the masters, or from three-dimensional models, such as bronzes or plaster casts. Artists had to face up to the task of painting the female nude without having seen too many in the flesh, but in practice they refused to be defeated by this problem. They could resort to the advice of Leonardo, or they would perforce model the female figure after the male model, and it is sometimes observed that Michelangelo’s female nudes appear to have male torsos but with breasts superimposed.”

But, on the other hand the nude has a long history in art going right back to the Ancient Greeks. It is a vehicle or a subject that allows the depiction of humans as they essentially are, stripped of clothes yes but also of any kind of badges of wealth and status. It’s a powerful genre, one of the few really lasting ones that can also be continually reinterpreted by successive generations of painters. Once upon a time it may indeed have been about celebrating the body beautiful but in our own day painters such as Lucien Freud and Francis Bacon have been far more likely to depict the naked human form as if it were a slab or meat on some kind of makeshift operating table than in an erotic sense. Boucher’s nudes may have been pretty hot in their day but the souls of the damned in Hans Memling’s “The Last Judgement” are nude also.
If you banned all nudes from art and forced artists to make all their figures semi-clothed would it not also be true that they’d look even more sexualised and pinup like?
I’m also a bit suprised when people talk about the nudity as if it were the first time that it had actually occurred to anybody, let alone an artist that depicting the naked human form could be in some way problematic. That tension between what makes a painting a work of art or a pin up is something that we can see in Manet’s “Olympia” for example where his contemporaries were more than happy to see sexualised pretty young women standing in for Greek godesses as long as their eyes were averted but couldn’t cope with a depiction of a contemporary Parisian type on a bed looking straight out of the canvas.
In truth though I think it’s like trying to explain anything to a non-enthusiast. If you’re interested in art you’ll get it, if not you won’t. I can see some interest in kicking a football around a pitch but not enough to inspire the levels of devotion that David Beckham does.
Apparently ( This is where the whole project really starts to go off in the deep end folks) viewers at home will get to draw models on the screen and get tips as they do so. I can’t wait to see how that’s going to work. Just remember kids: Despite what they may have told you at art college it’s just plain wrong to trace around the image on the screen with felt tips!