Diving into the Lacuna
I am doing a thesis which involves original research into European influenced Australian art since World War Two and the way artists’ models, and the bodies of artists, have been used in teaching and practice of art and design. While many artists have become increasingly preoccupied with exploring the traces of their own bodies, or using their bodies as the site for visual media, the use of artists’ models still continued to proliferate within art and design schools, artist’s studios and community art centres. This thesis will involves an exploration of what practices have continued to occur and where, and an interrogation of the theoretical literature which has marginalised or ignored practices using the model, and left practitioners largely without a critical language with which to interrogate their practice, or locate it within contemporary society. This thesis will use the discussion on the literature of the artist’s model, to interrogate what a model is or has been in the broader visual culture of late modernity
There is almost nothing written on the practice of life modelling, aside from fairly superficial biographic accounts. It is certainly hasn’t been described as a metier, and has a history of being largely poorly paid, casual, unreliable amateur, and short term employment. In the 19th century this was less so, especially in Europe where whole families would work as a artists models, often for their entire lives. Part of my research involves interviewing some of the 200 artists models currently working in Sydney, to gain some empirical record of the aspects of formalised physical presentation in which they are engaged.
My research then is largely motivated by a desire for amelioration, to fill in this gap in official social history of art practices. I am aware through personal experience that over 100 venues in Sydney employ life models on a regular (ie weekly) basis. Most of these are training institutions of some sort, and the rest are private or recreational sketch clubs. when I started my research, I investigated the history of art schools and arts academies, and which institutions employed artists models, and why they did it and when did they cease. What I discovered is that there is almost no quantitative research on the history of art institutions in Australia. There is a multitude of discussions in art theory journals about “the decline of the life class” after world war two, and “the resurgence” of the life class in the 1980’s, but no information on this other than these sorts of ephemeral comments, usually mentioned in the context of an exhibition review of vague theoretical polemic on figurative art.
Listing of venues where artists modelshave been used.
Some of these like the public institutions) hire models usually as casual employees with contracts, awards, superannuation etc. Others hire models as privatecontractors on an occasional basis.
Many places simply act as venues for artists or art students to gather informally, usually for a small hiring fee. Artists usually band together to cover the cost of the hiring fee and reimburse the model. These informal arrangements usually include tea, coffe, dinner or copies of drawings and as such are generally known about by word of mouth among artists. Recruitment is usually done by word of mouth through phone trees. Most of these informal sketch clubs, often held at community centres or art galleries are intermittent and occasional.
If anyone can add to this list PLEASE do so
Tertiary Art Schools/Training institutions
National Art School
UNSW College of Fine Arts
Sydney College of the Arts (occasional)
University of Western Sydney
SIT Ultimo (Fashions Design and Fashion manufacturing)
SIT Enmore Design Centre (Jewelry, 3D animation, Graphic Design)
SSIT Kogarah (Art, Graphic Desgin)
NSIT Seaforth (Art)
NSIT Hornsby (Art)
NSIT Meadowbank Sydney Gallery School (Art)
Billy Blue college of Graphic Design
Sydney College of Graphic Design (Parramatta)
Walt Disney Studios (2D animation)
Private Art Schools
Julian Ashton's School of Art
Royal Art Society
Tom Bass Sculpture Studio
Balmain Art School
Paddington Art School
Public non Accredited courses
University of Sydney Tin Sheds
(Faculty of Architecture and Continuing Education)
UNSW Faculty of the Built environment summer school
UNSW Union Spring/Summer Short Courses
UTS Insearch (School of Design)
NAS Public PRograms
Sydney Gallery School Evening COurses
Sydney Community College
Eastern Suburbs Evening College
North Sydney Community college
Western Sydney Community College
AGNSW "Contempo" Program
MCA Corporate Development Programs
Hazlehurst Regional Art Gallery
Mosman Art Gallery
Brett Whitely Studio
Alpha House Gallery
Community Art/Leisure Centres
Kuringai Art Centre
Waverley Woollahra Art Centre
Willoughby Art Centre
Pine Street Community Art Centre
Wooloomooloo Community Recreational Centre
Mission Australia Sydney Community Centre
Northbridge School of Art
Mosman School of Art
I’ve realised that to document the history of the life class in Australia in the past 50 years, would involve trawling through the archives of universities, art schools, TAFE’s and community colleges, and community centres to check on payslips and enrolments forms, to verify how many models were employed in how many life classes were run and how popular they were, as well as studying course curricula, to study the types of language used to justify the life class, and to see if this changed. This would be complicated by the fact that most models are employed informally and paid cash, and thus pay records up until 15 years ago, when until TFN’s were made mandatory, simply do not exist. Also given the amount of informal employment that still exists, my research would also involve contacting every single sketch club, studio, training institution, and private teacher and asking them when they have used models and what there experience was. I suspect this is a tad ambitious for the remaining 2 years of a 3 year PhD, so I’ve had to compromise a little on this one, and include some oral history, of some models and teachers, just so there is some record of this practice.
My frustration at the enormity of the archival project in front of me, was however complemented by a curiosity into how this reasonably relevant information became excluded from art history and theory. I am suspicious and curious about how certain socially lived practices, certain forms of cultural information and informal knowledge become incorporated into academic research, and why some are included and not others. What types of wider cultural agendas are at play and how does intellectual property gain wider social currency, and whose interests does it serve? In my own field, art history, academic research develops languages by which “new” or even “old” genres and art works can be promoted to museums and buyers. Ideally theoretical research would contribute to articulating a critical language by which dominant interpretations of visual culture can be contested.
Literature on life models, has always been at the margins, with a few social history books discussing or documenting models at any length. Larger discussions tended to be included in volumes on “the nude”, “eroticism” “history of drawing” “history of anatomy”. Within the art historical discourse on the body from the past 40 years, models occupied a significant discussion point on exploring discourses of the nude, the social relations of women’s bodies and the male voyeur.
Art history and theory have circulated around this area in three ways. The most obvious circulation consists of social histories of the life class including autobiographies of various models. There has been a small but constant stream of novels, anecdotes, press articles and films which feature biographical or fictional accounts of the life class. Popular attention seemed to peak in the late 19th century and early 20th century with Geroge Du Mauriers’s Trilby and the stage play based on it, but almost every decade since the 19th Century has produced a significant work of literature of film. This is contrasted with academic or art history literature on artists models and the life class. There is almost nothing, except for a couple of books in the 1980’s, the most thorough being “the artists Model” by Francis Borzello. While there appears to have been a steady and small amount of research into artists’ models, most of this has been published as chapters, papers, articles or occasional journal features. A lot of articles, are structured around very loose sociology or cultural studies formats, with localised or autobiographical components, so they are interesting but lacking any broad analysis or articulate relationship to contemporary literature. Most of this writing is framed in terms of discourses around representation of the nude, and figurative representations, and the role of the nude artists model in relation to social discourses on regulating sexuality and obscenity. What most accounts have in common is that the life class is largely confined to ‘the past’, ie Europe and European colonial cultures between the seventeenth century up to the start of the twentieth. There is almost no discussion of the life class after world war two, except as the reserve of amateur art societies and soft porn drawing manuals. The social history of the female artists model, would indicate that the 19th century life class was where the iconic role of contemporary representations of women in consumer advertising were initially developed. Borzello argues that the social relations that govern the employment of catwalk models and fashion “mannequins” were derived from those developed from artists models in Europe.
In any case, the social histories of artists models and the life class have been influenced by a second circulation of art history, the “meta-discourses” of representations, which have largely referred to the life class in its relationship to the discourses on the nude. The classic approach to this is Kenneth Clarke “the nude”, which described the symbolic values attached to the fine art nude in terms of a rather problematic appropriation of Platonic aesthetics, and this has been thoroughly critiqued since, largely by Marxists such as John Berger and feminists like Lynda Nead and Griselda Pollock. Critiques of Clark had two components, one which sought to historicise the gendered and social relations in which the images were produced and circulated and the other was to try to problematise and deconstruct the nature of representation itself.
Clark’s discourse on the nude, like that of his critics, focussed on the gender and sexual relations in figurative art, and the fine art nude largely as a representation of female bodies and female sexuality within a discourse largely created by and for heterosexual men. In relation to the life class, as well as to the history of figurative representation, this emphasis on the nude model, and the young, female, idealised model excluded much of the social history of the life class, artists models and figurative images which, as discussed by Borzello, historically featured equal numbers of men and women, as well as elderly and child models. Many social histories, seeking to challenge Clark’s through “a materalist account” of the history of the nude, by confining their studies to the gender relations encapsulated in the female nude and male dominated drawing academy, ignored other factors which influenced the history of the life class, such as the historical relationships between art and medicine, and the social links between modelling, poverty, criminality and the procuring of corpses for anatomical study.
The emphasis in art historical literature on the fine art nude as a metonym for representation and regulation of gendered sexual relations, generated an aesthetically critical approach which has been used in wider areas, such as cultural studies, to analyse other genres such as photography, pornography and advertising. It has arguably also contributed to the redundancy of plastic figurative representations to contemporary discourses on the body and visual culture. If the social practices which have generated the fine art nude, life drawings, life paintings and other plastic representations of the body have only been a means of representing and mediating the sexuality of the human body, then it is little wonder that plastic representations are largely redundant in a consumer culture which is saturated with figurative images, with far greater verisimilitude and credibility that the staid and staged repertoire of images from the history of fine art nudes. With the proliferation of photographic technology, the social forums for viewing the nude exploded beyond the life class, and images produced in the life class, to the mass consumer fields of pornography and sexualised advertising.
Many art critics, informed by a feminist agenda towards challenging the gendered social relations imbedded in visual culture, sought to articulate interventions within the visual arts that could challenge “viewing regimes” which were deemed to objectify women’s bodies. In such literature, the life class was seen largely as an anachronism, a nostalgic re-enactment of the 19th century heyday of heterosexist scopophilia, confined to reactionary or ill informed dilettantes. Contemporary interventions relied on utilising the verisimilitude of figurative representations ubiquitous in contemporary visual culture and rather than producing plastic figurative images of other bodies, artists were encouraged to present or document presentation of their own body. Where artists use other bodies, or “models”, they were encouraged to use photography or film or digital manipulation, where the artifice is enclosed within a reference to verisimilitude. Some art critics, such as Pollock, almost tended towards a type of iconoclasm in their rejection of figurative images, declaring that all acts of representing or invoking the body are repressive, and favouring largely abstract or text based ‘scripto-visual’ interventions.
The criticism of the life class that emerged on most feminist texts from the 1970’s and 1980’s, relied on theories of spectatorship which implied that the viewers, artists, were voyeurs, or passive spectators. The typical analysis described the female nude (model) as operating as a metonym for men’s own physical embodiment, sexuality, irrationality etc., in effect functioning as a phantasm of the men’s own selves projected on to women. The platonic ideal, represented by the nude, being encapsulated in such words as beauty, sublime etc. really was little more than the phallus, and had nothing to do with representing actual women. This totalising view of the nude, while elucidating some of the socialised and gendered grounding in which images of the nude circulated, has had very little to say about how these images have been produced, and what they consist of. (male) Artists working from (female) naked models were conflated with (male) spectators of naked images of women. These were described as intrinsically complicit or directive of the voyeuristic gaze of the spectator. Most of these theories were derived from structuralist theories of popular culture and film, and then adopted by art theory. And what they do is to collapse all image making into the same order of activity. Photography was located as a uncontested heir to the apparent verisimilitude of slick looking 19th Cc salon paintings. the determining capacity of the images was ascribed to what they were representing, rather than what residues of their production or construction were legible.
What these types of analyses ignored were they types of temporal differences intrinsic to differing mediums. Photography in the 20th C became largely instant. Even though a photography shoot may take hours, it consists of a mechanical recording of a series of multiple glances, which mirror, more closely the types of looking that viewers of 2D images have. Drawings and paintings however are much slower, and sculpture even more so. The act of life drawing is largely dependant on the model, and also on the artists own physical capacities to mimetically reproduce their (controlled) or uncontrolled visual and physical responses to the model in front of them. Given this perspective, the artist is no longer a type of voyeur, spying the singular performance of the model, but a type of participant in the performance, but not quite a central performer, but a participating witness. A witness is different form a spectator, they feel a part of what they are watching, they feel impelled towards and action from it.
Representation was a thickly contested field in art history for over twenty years. Many art critics used semiotic approaches, derived from Roland Barthes, and later from Jacques Lacan in order to articulate the social significance of figurative images. Images of the nude, and the female body in particular were deemed to be referents, metonymic signifiers of “the female” itself constructed through dominant social discourse and imposed on a semiotically disempowered and unwitting feminine public. Such theories increasingly relied on an assumption of the verisimilitude of the dominant images, and thus were largely localised to a historical period were photographic images proliferated as a credible representation of reality, and were seen to have superseded the inadequate artifice of plastic representations.
Contemporary art theory has enclosed itself in a third discursive circulation, largely responding to the dilemmas raised by contemporary visual culture, in the destabilising of the criteria of verisimilitude and artifice which governed much art theory of the twentieth century. Contemporary art itself involves a deliberate play on the credibility of photographic representations, by the use of digital manipulation, in combination or separate from plastic surgical interventions in the structure and appearance of the body. Contemporary social theories have explored a “post-human” condition, one in which humanity is itself construed as a product of discourse, a set of gestures or linguistic intonations that are themselves derived, not from an original real world referent, but from discourse itself. The state of hyper-reality which is said to constitute contemporary culture is based on the circulation of copies without an original, a penultimate secession of simulacra which culminates on the body itself only existing in secondary relation to its discursive construct: the mannequin.
The contemporary quandary of the post humanist condition has inspired a flurry of writing under a loose rubric called “body theory”. Much of this has looked to aspects of phenomenology to inscribe a post humanist subject in philosophical discourse. The type of body that is theorised in “body theory” is described as being mute, unstable, slippery, stammering, inept, lacking, driven and contagious. Furthermore it is mostly abstracted as “the body” not a body, his body, her body, that body, those bodies, or my body. This abstracting tendency is probably the most problematic aspect of body theory, as it leads to a singularity of corporeal denoting, which is a very shallow slide from essentialising tropes such as “humanity” or “mankind”. While some types of “body theories” sees to be premised on using “the body” almost like a completely abstract term, that is absolutely undescribed as a quantifiable physical entity, other aspects have allowed a more flexible and eloquent articulation of the fraught nexus between the representation and reality.
In terms of art theory, the emphasis on bodies as material entities has led to a fascination with the material study of the body and of medical anatomy. Contemporary artists have used medical imaging techniques and created wax sculptures of bodies and body parts, and art history increasingly has started to explore the history of medical anatomy and its relationship to the history of art. The conspicuous erudition of writers such as Gilles Deleuze has led to an increasingly interdisciplinary approach in discussing the history of images of the body. A number of recent exhibitions have produced texts which have provided social histories of medicine, anatomy and art academies often describing the theatrical elements of the dissection room, and the mimetic exchanges between doctor, patient and image as a theatre of corporeal pedagogy.
This latter approach is probably the most fecund in terms of its capacity to articulate the multiplicity of relations in the life class both past and present. Hopefully some of these articulations can elucidate why the life class would have persisted and proliferated when its capacity to express and regulate sexuality has become largely redundant. This thesis argues that throughout the twentieth century, sexuality became a diminished aspect of the artists/life model exchange, and that the major imperative governing the life class has increasingly been that of mimicking and arresting death.
Many artists (and models) will state that being a good model has very little to do with stripping naked or having a “good” body, but in knowing how to pose. Posing itself is nothing like photographic or fashion models or of body building contestants, and is not an inert “display of bodily excellence” but is a type of performance. The closest description I came to what life modelling involves were in the “paroles sur le mime” by Etienne Decroux. Decroux’s ideas of “mime statuaire”, of mime as being a corporal language, not aiming to translate words into gestures, but to move the body into configurations that would suggest or invoke abstract, emotional and non linguistic states.
Decroux’s mime statuaire aimed to invoke the arrested tension of Rodin’s sculpture. Rodin’s sculptures were actually assemblages of sections that were modelled and cast seperately. It is almost impossible for a live model to pose in the contorted arrangements of a Rodin sculpture, or to sustain the position for a duration of a sculpture class. (6 and 30 hours). Rodin’s forms are based on movement and not repose.
My intervention into art theory with this project is largely to articulate figurative images in terms of the embodied gestures of the artists. Again this is largely Artaudian. In its search beyond the “text” or language, to a stammering onomatopoeia of movements and noises which convey something beyond language. I don’t look at figurative images in terms of the narrative of what is being pictorially depicted or represented, but look at the traces of gestures, the marks, the residues of embodiment , the artefacts of gestures, movements made by the artists. This is what gives the work its temporal edge. Drawings and paintings are not taken, they are not located in an instant, but occur in a state of duration, over time. They are a product of multiple glances, actions movements, blinking. The artists is not struggling with the less than ideal body in front of them so much as their own less than ideal dexterity in tyring to represent the body in front of them. What is the nature of this trace? Is it a tracing off a mimetic gesture, imitating the pose (not often? is it a tracing of a series of gazes, often a disciplining of the stochastic glances to a linear progression along contours? Is this is what is represented by a line?
I’d differentiate between an artist and performer, in that a performer does not generate a plastic residue of their actions. A performance is isolated spatially and temporally within the theatrical timeframe. Art generate residues, (images, objects) that transmit something of the performance beyond its immediate situation. Possibly these image residues can be seen as analogous to text, and the way that oral histories and stories and songs get transcribed and written into text, but I’m not sure. Writing is largely governed by fairly strict semiotic conventions. While spoken language can be stretched, strained murmured interjected and distorted, written languages have fairly straightforward rules for the translation of phonetics into written text. The nature of the rules for drawing, or painting have been considerably challenged however. The “decline of academic life drawing” has meant that contemporary figurative images are heterogeneous and not so much lack versimilitude, but are characterised by an absence of conventions for how marks on a page, canvas or on an object are articulated as either gestural or reresentative signifiers. Art historians don’t have any sort of consensus on ascribing the representative capacities of various visual elements (be they formal, abstract, gestural or representational) to any sort of “authentic” theatre of mimetic exchange.
"I'd gone to sessions where people draped the model in all this stuff and fussed about the folds in the cloth and then argued over the pose for an hour. It used to drive me nuts. The Charlottesville group was much more 'Stick the model in a chair, put her under the light, and let's go!' When I saw that, I said, 'This is the real thing. This is challenging and it's going to be worth it.' And it sure was."