Our vision is continually active, continually moving, continually holding things in a circle around itself, constituting what is present to us as we are.
—John Berger, Ways of Seeing
At the age of 50, I am going to a life drawing class. I have had the desire to do so for a long time but I am terrified.
It is an untutored class at 6.15 on a Wednesday night. You can turn up without notice and this gives me the possibility of an out. In the hours beforehand my mind attempts to trick me: dishes up to the ceiling, abandoning everyone with no dinner plan and a crazy unwalked dog, exhaustion. Not one of these things is new, nor have any one of them stopped me breezily leaving the house on numerous other occasions.
But four weeks in a row, I do get there. I look at the models and attempt to capture them. It isn’t easy.
From outside it is a small, boxy, shop warehouse looking place, with chunky glass doors at the front. I imagine it was once the retail arm of a factory, selling things in bulk, perhaps washing machine hoses or paperclips.
Inside it is pleasant and full of light, if pretty stuffy on a hot night. Slanted skylights, 15 easels arranged in a circle, turned so the artist may look at the model and draw without having to pause, a few tables for the less bold. There is a square, raised platform for the model, white, a plain wooden chair. In one corner are shelves of art books, quotes from artists about what it is to make art (Michelangelo is quoted as saying, ‘If people knew how hard I work to get my mastery, it wouldn’t seem so wonderful at all’), reproductions of artists. There are Picasso and Braque, Egon Schiele and Klimt, Alice Neel, Lee Krasner, Louise Bourgeois and Mary Cassatt among others. Above this is a mezzanine floor with a few extra easels. I assume this is for those who, even more than me, feel the need to hide.
As we are setting up, my thoughts seem to dissolve. I don’t know how to put my paper on the easel, which kind of paper to use, how to cut it, whether to use pencils or charcoal. My 16-year-old son, who has come with me, says the square little rubbery things rub out charcoal. I can’t decide between the water, beer, wine, tea or coffee on offer. When I opt for a glass of wine, it may as well be water, I barely taste it.
The model removes her floral wrap and her pointy bejewelled slippers and stands. She raises her elegant arms over her head and wraps one around the other. Then she leans her head into her right arm, stills herself. There are shufflings, someone sniffs, the woman running the class, Junie, who has a self-conscious giggle and a passing resemblance to Mel from Flight of the Conchords, starts the first song in her playlist. It is something inoffensive, a bit wafty, a female singer with a touch of longing. I begin to draw.
There are five poses of two minutes each, three of ten and then after a break, two long poses of 20 minutes. Junie announces when we are halfway through a pose. Sometimes I feel relief at this—I can’t do much more with my wretched drawing—sometimes I hurriedly turn over the paper and begin again.
Freud suggests in The Ego and the Id that artists remain closer than writers to ‘excessively powerful instinctual needs’ (Freud, 376). Maybe that’s the problem with me. My conscious mind seems to fight the process. I try to get lost in the lines of the model’s body but my mind won’t allow it. I knock into my easel several times and my mouth is dry. I find excruciating the thought that someone will look at my sketch and when the model changes positions I shuffle it out of sight.
The minimum rate for life drawing is $35 per hour. Models may join the Life Drawing Association of Victoria, reminding them not to go along with dodgy employers or poor conditions. The latter might include posing on freezing laminex tables or keeping poses for longer than 20 minutes. They are encouraged to keep hats and socks on until heaters crank up, never attempt financial negotiation when naked and not make eye contact with artists, as some people find this intimidating. Taking in the word ‘artist’ I feel a little skip in my chest. Does this mean, just by coming to this modest little class, I can call myself one, if only for two hours on a Wednesday?
The model is willowy, has the kind of golden skin with absolutely no blemishes, small breasts with pink nipples, and a slightly protruding belly, no significant hips. I feel uncomfortable seeing her as a sum of physical parts but she appears somewhere inside herself, arranging herself into poses that I couldn’t maintain for half a minute. In the second pose she leans forward, puts one hand on the platform then twists her body around, raising the opposite arm towards the ceiling, something like a lopsided yoga pose. In the next she tucks one leg under her bottom and lays her head against one arm. The one I like the best is a lying-down pose in which her arms and legs are arranged with a kind of studied nonchalance as if she is resting in the middle of a dance performance. Liking the poses does not, unfortunately, mean I can draw them. I look and shake my head. How to begin? Janet Malcolm has written that:
To the writer, the painter is a fortunate alter ego, an embodiment of the sensuality and exteriority that he has abjured to pursue his invisible, odorless calling. The writer comes to the places where traces of making can actually be seen and smelled and touched expecting to be inspired and enabled, possibly even cured. (Malcolm, 13)
I have always felt a sense of longing, and of envy too, when I have visited artists’ studios. And there has been a kind of fantastical thinking in my experience too. I have always felt that it could be me, that in another life I could be an artist.
Malcolm doesn’t say anything about writers clumsily attempting to learn to draw in middle age and my artist fantasy brings with it layers of romanticism, like so many layers of paint. When I was in my twenties this kind of thinking led to several crushes and failed affairs with artists or people I thought of as artists; even the fact that someone was the son of an artist was enough to reel me in. Another man was a gallery attendant at the Tate.
I did draw and paint as a child. I remember a kaleidoscope of leaves patterning the page as my father, who died when I was 13, showed me how to shade with charcoal. As with this dream-like memory, I am reluctant to puncture the sense of yearning around art and artists.
Writers paint scenes too, but to me, as with Malcolm’s rigid wordsmiths, there is something earthy and sensual, fascinating and mysterious about casting something from the imagination onto the canvas or moulding it into a shape. When I see Louise Bourgeois’ exhibition I am swept up in pain, anger, rawness. How can it be? Have I imposed these feelings on the work? It seems physical, as if I have taken the rawness into myself.
In tackling the class, which seems somehow like going into battle, although I am only going from North Melbourne to Footscray, I feel I am puncturing my romantic fantasy with the real.
A friend tells me, wryly, that in the life drawing class she attends there is a woman who always bursts into tears. It is clear there is a certain amount of sighing at this—there she goes again—but I feel sympathetic. I am struck by the intensity in the class. At the beginning there is a kind of settling as if people are leaving the world they have come from outside. Someone gives a discrete yawn, someone drops a pencil and unobtrusively picks it up. I think of churches, meditation, the births of my children. There seems something profound about drawing the human body.
But of course I am fearful of judgement, mockery, and have an aching awareness of my incompetence. My artist friend says perhaps this is how a child feels when she is learning to read. John Berger writes in Ways of Seeing: ‘Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak’ (Berger, 7). Is this where the emotion comes in? I watch people’s eyes move critically from the model to their paper and back again. I imagine that, as it is with me, the gap between what they see and what they draw seems impossible to breach.
Looking is what I can do; even when my mind wanders I try to get my hand to re-create what I see. Junie tells me it’s useful to think of positive and negative space, and I hang onto this like a life raft. Sometimes I feel elated when I capture one small part of what I see, and then I notice another part. My eye zooms in. There is always something I have missed.
My artist friend tells me that the less you look at your drawing the better. A visual adjustment takes place. Perhaps it is like learning to drive, the development of spatial awareness that allows you to keep accelerator, clutch, brake and steering wheel in mind simultaneously and not crash into the wall adjacent to the Kew Safeway car park, as I did when my brother was teaching me to drive in 1985.
What happens, my friend says, is that a way of seeing and describing kicks in. I recognise this in my writing, a feeling that yes, that’s right. Equally I know when it isn’t right. Siri Hustvedt describes a process of ‘throwing out the lies that tempt me’ (Hustvedt, 41) and of returning to the work until truth reveals itself.
Proportion is supremely difficult. I render the curve of the model’s hip only to be undone by her thigh. I have depicted her—sitting bent over holding her legs in a pose that looks both comfortable and serene—as a stunted baby-like creature with an enlarged head and a hunchback.
In the final 20 minutes the model moves into a kind of runner’s stance, crouched down, one knee bent, the other leg stretched back as if onto the blocks. Her hands hold the weight of her body. In my version her legs appear trunk-like. I can’t get the delicate bones of her ankles or the roundness of her thighs, the way it all joins up. But despite the hopelessness of my drawing I feel elated at this last attempt. Here I am doing what I always dreamt of doing.
I am cocky tonight. I have made it through week one and returned. I am practically a veteran. The model suits my more relaxed state of mind. She is barrel shaped, with some interesting darker areas of skin, pendulous breasts, scars and stretch marks, small ankles and elegant feet. She makes me think of Brecht’s Mother Courage, as if she could tackle anything and be useful in battle.
During the week I come across a description of artists model Margrethe Mather in Janet Malcolm’s essay about American photographer Edward Weston, who was obsessed by Mather. A fellow photographer dismissed her years later as ‘fat and not very attractive … living with a homosexual … none of that beauty left …’ (Malcolm, 182).
This summing up of a woman apparently past her use-by date makes my feminist blood boil. But I understand now how it might be possible to fall under a model’s spell. What is it to draw people unclothed when you are clothed? Berger suggests that ‘traditional nudes’ such as Titian’s Venus of Urbino and Ingres’ The Grande Odalesque are differently depicted from men, ‘not because the feminine is different from the masculine but because the “ideal” spectator is always assumed to be a male and the image of the woman is designed to flatter him’ (Berger, 64).
Berger is not talking about scrappy life drawings made in Footscray, but any attempt to depict the female body raises questions about what it means to see and be seen. Berger suggests redoing a female nude as a man by drawing over a reproduction. ‘[T]hen’, he says, ‘notice the violence which that transformation does. Not to the image, but to the assumptions of a likely viewer’ (64). In the absence of any male models so far, I don’t have any experience with which to compare. I am also a little relieved. Rendering penises and scrotums seems beyond my technical capabilities.
Model number three is pale, with tiny features and frizzy blonde bobbed hair. She looks like someone out of a 1920s Parisian salon and arrives wearing black tap shoes with white ankle socks. She squints and occasionally looks directly at people. To me this feels like breaking a film’s fourth wall. Not only is it going against the codes of Life Models of Victoria (intimidation), but I fear that by looking into her eyes my drawing will seem even worse, as if she will recognise my lack of skill, as a dog might smell fear. Lying down, eyes shut, she seems impossibly beautiful and elusive. I rub out and redraw it four or five times but I cannot capture one round breast.
I find myself oddly resistant to the idea of drawing instruction. My artist friend says she will give me tips but I never take up the offer. Partly this is because of self-consciousness but I like the idea of floundering too. Perhaps I imagine myself as some sort of idiot savant, but without the savant part.
Over the years as I have moved towards becoming a writer I have written about failed artists, artists who can no longer produce art, mothers with young children who want to make art but feel themselves to be drowning in domesticity. I have transplanted the yearning into my characters. Yearning for what? To make art, to take a risk. Perhaps, as artist David Salle has said, ‘A painting has to be the experience, instead of pointing to it.’ And as he does, I want to ‘have and to give access to feeling’ (Salle in Malcolm, 37). In my romantic notion, the making of art has always seemed to offer, perhaps even more than writing, a shortcut to feeling.
Jhumpa Lahiri’s In Other Words describes her decision to immerse herself in the Italian language she has long loved. After years of learning it, she moves her family to Rome and begins writing and reading solely in Italian. As the child of Bengali immigrants in the United States, Lahiri was the family’s official English speaker, but in the world she carries her Bengali heritage like a badge that can’t be removed. And yet Lahiri can’t read or write in Bengali and has an accent when she speaks it. She is not Bengali nor quite American either.
Italian presents itself as a kind of third way, a language of romance, desiring, unfettered by the complexities of English or Bengali. She feels about the language ‘an indiscreet absurd longing. An exquisite tension’ (Lahiri, 15), but this does not grant her access to it. She describes writing in ‘terrible, embarrassing Italian … grop[ing] her way like a child, like a semiliterate’ (55). Her love for Italian is endless, unfathomable: ‘I don’t understand this mysterious impulse, which emerges out of nowhere. I can’t stop.’
And as with me, there is always a gap between her ability and her longing. Identifying with Lahiri makes me aware how rarely I do anything in which I start with no knowledge and no skills. Not that my skill set is so large, rather that I have narrowed it down to areas in which I am safe and competent.
Writers who have drawn are an ill-matched group including Victor Hugo, Sylvia Plath, Henry Miller, J.R.R. Tolkien, Nabokov, e.e. Cummings, William S. Burroughs and J.K. Rowling. I wonder whether they had to stop doing one activity to do the other. Plath studied visual art as well as writing before deciding upon the latter as a career. Clearly she felt she had to choose.
I am aware that the art of life drawing is not very fashionable. A friend who paints abstracts sees it as rigid, the antithesis of creativity. Strange then that the attempt feels as if it is taking me into an area of extraordinary danger and elation, as if I am attempting to climb an enormous rocky outcrop and below me is the swirling sea. However, these over-the-top musings aren’t much help. There is the scratch of charcoal on paper, the smudge of black on my hands, the clumsy lines, the starting again. A group of new writers and I put together an anthology called Scratchings. I remember resisting the name. Perhaps I am always attached to the idea of romance rather than hard slog.
A fellow student roaming around during a break asks me whether I am an accomplished artist. It is so ridiculous that I almost laugh. It seems as corny as a pick-up line in a bar. ‘Do you come here often?’
‘No, I’m an absolute beginner,’ I say.
He says my lines are interesting, strong, unconventional and despite knowing it’s not true I take this flattery straight to my breast and hold it close. Later my 11-year-old daughter asks me why a model’s head appears to be on backwards. I cannot for the life of me work out what I was trying to depict. My daughter looks at my renderings of feet—I find these as well as hands spectacularly hard. They look like rabbits or those slippers made to resemble rabbits. We fall on the floor laughing.
I didn’t become an artist but I did decide against following my degree with a course in curatorial studies and I travelled to Europe instead, writing rapturous letters home about the paintings I saw. Something about this intense time of looking at art made me believe that I could create something too. I decided to study writing.
When I got back from overseas I gave the rapture of the European gallery experience to one of my characters, a kind of infatuation with visual art. I was trying to capture something of the longing within me when I looked at paintings. My protagonist, a man who has been unfaithful to his artist wife because he is jealous of her talent, sends her postcards of paintings—Picasso’s Head of a Woman with Green Curls, Van Gogh’s Pietà, Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait and Camille Claudel’s The Kiss—as a way of explaining his betrayal without words. He seeks absolution in the paintings, in art, the language they share, as if to show that he had no choice in his unfaithfulness.
Gertrude Stein liked to hold forth about the madness of writers as opposed to artists. Apparently this is because each day artists are confronted by their own lack of skill hanging on walls before their very eyes. I am unsure about the comparative ratio of mad artists to mad writers—I would have said about even—but I relate to the indignity of seeing my crude portrayals writ large in charcoal on sizeable pieces of paper. How much easier to nurse fantasies of brilliance when you don’t have to stare your material in the face.
Tonight’s model is tall with the lean muscled body of a yoga practitioner and hennaed hair in a topknot. She does a series of stretches, then calmly and deliberately takes off her green and white dotty wrap and twists her body into the first pose, bending from the waist and placing two hands on the floor. She holds herself completely still. I gaze at her helplessly. The experience of three classes appears to have improved my technique very little. I half shut my eyes and try to let my hand make its mark.
The old man next to me wears a shirt, waistcoat and suit pants on a hot night. He doesn’t smile and appears to enter an immediate state of concentration, drawing in large expressive sweeps. During the break he points at me. ‘Kate,’ I say.
‘Anthony,’ he writes on the corner of his paper. He holds his hand against his throat and gestures that he cannot speak. I think of the marks on his paper as saying what he cannot.
The young woman on the other side of me sits drawing in a sketchbook rather than using an easel. Her model appears in triangular shapes rendered with coloured pencils. I wonder what this rendition means, so incalculably different from mine. I think of Bob Dylan blasting out with an electric guitar at Newport Folk Festival and I feel desperately old-fashioned.
Robert Dessaix has written about the gap between his feelings for the Russian language and the limitations of his knowledge:
How sad I feel when I admit to myself (as I must, if I’m honest) that I will never know it for all my love of it, as intimately as even some ten-year-old street kid in Vladivostok knows it. Yet it’s woven into my soul, it’s the welt to the warp I was born with. (Dessaix, 24)
Dessaix’s comment has the quality of unrequited love, yearning, melancholic but resigned too. That is how things are. I wonder whether he would really want to change things, or at least to take away the aura of mystery and wonder that is inextricably caught up with that which he loves.
In my halting attempt at life drawing, I am hampered by my own grandiosity and my lack of skill but I am enacting something that has long preoccupied my unconscious and conscious mind. The scope of what I am doing is so modest compared to Lahiri’s project, but it feels similarly momentous. I cannot ignore this vague, amorphous yearning to draw all my life. At last, even if it is more of a bomb than a swan dive, I am plunging in.
When arts administrator and artist Betty Churcher found out she was losing her eyesight she returned to the European galleries with a notebook to copy the paintings she loved. The drawings recorded and published in her Notebooks are delicate, imbued with feeling. And by making marks with a pencil in her hand, Churcher was able to commit the paintings to memory. She no longer had to see them because she had taken their essence into who she was and this she would hold with her until death.
After the fourth class I look closely at one drawing. There are the beginnings of an arm that went wrong and I have begun again. In my second attempt I have smudged the charcoal and the lines of the model’s body are rough, with few details. But for the first time I see the form of a human body standing, one arm cast out in front of her. This one I pin up above my desk. It’s a start. •
John Berger, Ways of Seeing, British Broadcasting Corporation and Penguin, London, 1972 (1985 edn).
Betty Churcher, Notebooks, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 2011.
Robert Dessaix, What Days Are For: A Memoir, Random House, Sydney, 2014.
Sigmund Freud, ‘General Theory of the Neuroses’, trans. J Strachey, vol. 16.
Siri Hustvedt, Eros, Sceptre, 2006.
Jhumpa Lahiri, In Other Words, Bloomsbury, London, 2015.
Janet Malcolm, Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York, 2013.