Life Drawing Classby Liz Stephens
Your teenage years are supposed to be a time for experimentation, sexual awakening and clothing choices that will haunt you into the wee small hours of later life. I was no exception — my hormones were raging stronger than imported beef and I was as horny as any other repressed Catholic schoolgirl in a tweed-polyester-mix skirt. So I took A Level Art. Not because it offered me a creative outlet for my pubescent frustration, but because for two hours a week you had to attend life drawing classes. In other words, you got to stare at naked people. This seemed like a pretty good lesson to me. Sadly, it wasn’t the kind of sexual epiphany I was hoping for…
As a general rule, Catholic girls’ schools tend to frown on nudity (except in the chaplain’s office — then it’s obviously encouraged). However, there exists in the tradition of Catholic religious art a tolerance for the wonders of the human body — particularly its ‘go forth and multiply’ parts. For evidence of this we need look no further than the example set by Sister Wendy Beckett, who proved that even the most cloistered of nuns can enjoy looking at cock. Life drawing classes were encouraged at my school as a (supervised) celebration of the human body. It’s a ‘look but don’t touch’ policy that has, over the years, spawned a generation of lap-dance enthusiasts.
In addition to this ‘church sanctioned’ artistic voyeurism, I had the kind of Swinging 60s art teachers who weren’t just present at the Summer of Love — they drew the body art. So once a week I got to look in great detail at a lot of tits, ass and bulging g-strings (the modern-day equivalent of the modesty leaf).
And it almost turned me off sex for life.
For starters, there’s something really unnerving about being in a room full of young British women taking a life drawing class. Put a naked man on a pole in a room with freely available alcohol and we know exactly how to misbehave; put a naked man on a chair in the middle of a prefab classroom with plug-in heaters and the overpowering stench of linseed oil permeating from a string of easels and we all come over terribly unsure of ourselves. It’s like having a big naked elephant in the room. Everyone is far too polite to make reference to it.
If you want to know the difference between art and pornography, transport one of the Chippendales to a life drawing class and watch that bacchanalian party atmosphere deflate instantly. There’s no leering, tittering or enjoyment allowed: life drawing is a serious grown up business and everyone knows it’s extremely childish to giggle at a nude. For two hours a week I sat in po-faced silence scrutinising a series of near-naked men in a room full of similarly sombre teenagers all trying desperately hard not to make eye contact. It was hell.
Still, I was only sixteen years old and I had never even had sex — surely the opportunity to stare at a member of the opposite sex for two hours a week would have been enough? That brings me to the second issue — not one of the models chosen for our life drawing classes was under fifty-years-old. According to my art teacher this was because wrinkles made for a more ‘interesting and difficult’ painting. I didn’t want ‘interesting’. I wanted nubile. I wanted the man in the launderette from the Levi’s advert. What I didn’t want was someone whose greying pubes appeared to start at knee-level.
Above all, what I really didn’t want was to stare at a series of geriatric men who were using my life drawing class as a cheap alternative to Viagra.
While I may not have found these elderly male models arousing, the same definitely couldn’t be said for them. The idea of posing in the altogether for a gaggle of pubescent Catholic schoolgirls was so rewarding they probably weren’t even being paid. They spent the entire class every week in a state of constant penile flux. I know this because I had to spend a substantial part of two hours a week for two years staring at their crotches — and then erasing and re-drawing their members. Anyone who knows anything about nude modelling knows the model is supposed to stay still — drawing a moving object is extremely challenging, especially when it’s not just moving, it’s growing and shrinking.
Every half-hour the teacher would come round to inspect my work and invariably the size of the appendage had changed since last time. This was always my fault for not getting my perspective correct. When I protested “it was like that 10 minutes ago,” I was invariably greeted with a wry smile. After two years I could erase and re-draw a bulge faster than Rolf Harris.
But the worst was yet to come. After two years of life drawing classes, sketching naked pervert grizzlies for two hours a week, you become an artist.
When people say that artists “see the world in a different way,” what they mean is, just as photographers see everything as a potential shot and comedians see the funny side of life, artists see everything as a series of shapes on a canvas. Soon you start to see everyone in the entire world as a series of rectangles and circles, cuboids and cylinders. You dissect people’s anatomy visually in much the same way as one of those diagrams of cuts of meat at the butchers. This completely desexualises the human body. It’s a great coping mechanism for dealing with the need to regularly stare at the swelling protuberance of someone who could be your grandfather (I would have made a lousy gold-digger). It’s a bummer for any kind of sexual relationship.
So now whenever I see a nude painting of a young female (it’s never an old man, is it?) I think about how ‘interesting and difficult’ it is.