When considering such temperamental, tempestuous creators as Coleridge, Dickens or Van Gogh, I have often judgementally concluded it must take a person of extraordinary understanding, patience or perhaps foolishness to suffer those who suffer so for their art. This week though the tables are turned, as I must put faith in your understanding and beg you to suffer my art – though I use the term extremely loosely.
I am not an artist. I believe the ability to draw, to paint, to sketch or competently execute any related discipline is, like the ability to sing or work with numbers, something innate. A skill that can be developed and refined, but only if basic competency already dwells within. And if, after struggling for a quarter of a century, the only two things you can competently draw are an alien and the back-side of elephant, you can be fairly sure that little of Da Vinci’s soul dwells within you, and that your chances of making a living illustrating children’s books are, at best, limited.
While my inadequacy artistically has hitherto been a disappointment, this week it was a veritable liability, as by attending a life drawing class I risked exposing my lack of talent in an environment where such an absence could raise serious questions about my moral character. A life drawing class is a surreal situation enough – a place where ordinary social convention is temporarily suspended and it is deemed perfectly acceptable for dozens of people with brushes, pencils and other pointed implements to gather around and stare fixatedly at a lone naked figure. But if it then transpires that one of the dozens cannot even draw, and, in spite of being aware of that fact, gathered to stare fixatedly nonetheless? Well then, that person may justifiably be judged an imposter.
In order not to suffer such a fate I set myself two objectives in attending this class. The first was to conceal the fact that I could not draw. The second was to pretend I was as comfortable with being presented with a buck-naked stranger as the artists around me appeared or pretended to be.
The first of these objectives I conspired to fulfil by finding for myself a seat against a wall, with no room for an easel behind and no passage to walk, and therefore no danger of any other artist looking over my shoulder. I furthermore did my best to conceal my sketchy sketches from the artist seated on my right by holding my paper at an awkward upright position at all times. To my left sat nobody, as there was the chair our male model had settled upon, after scanning the room, as the ideal spot to deposit his dressing gown and glasses. Which decision is why my second objective was from the outset a far more challenging one to fulfil.
I am not averse to seeing the naked male form. I do though object to having that form suddenly disrobed a bare foot away from my face. Such a close inspection of the subject I had not bargained for, and I certainly did not want it, but fortunately as our model undressed I was distracted from the awkwardness of contemplating what was before my face by the more awkward question of what to do with my own. As a modest young lady my natural reaction was to look in the opposite direction, but I did not want to give the impression to the real artists that I was out of my depth; I was after all in the class precisely to look at the man now glorifying in his natural state beside me. I also worried that should I jerk my gaze too violently away from him, the model may think I was repulsed by his body, which kick in the ego’s groin is not the ideal start to an evening of flaunting yourself to a roomful of strangers. And so with a determined denial for one’s surroundings that is so prized in us British, I pretended that a man I do not know getting undressed next to me was the most unremarkable thing in the world, and looked straight ahead.
He did not linger long of course, but soon idled back into the centre of the circle of fifty or so artists. He was a short, paunchy, hairy, middle-aged man with a partially bald square head, and a beaky Wellington nose, and exuded a carefree, jocular confidence that suggested he was supremely relaxed in his body (a fact which put me on edge), and belied the truth that most people would only allow lovers, doctors and morticians to ever see so much of their own.
The variety of postures he contrived over the course of the next hour offered further testament to his enthusiasm for his role, ranging as they did from the admirable to the bizarre. Of his quick poses, plumbing the ceiling with a broom handle was his oddest creation, his foetal curl on the floor was a little disturbing, but the plaintive knee-hug was almost touching. When it came to the twenty-minute poses, his decision to prostrate himself on the floor cradling the broom handle like a gun was so exciting as to arouse an “ooh” from the elderly gentleman next to me, and the second, in which the model stood looking over his shoulder with one hand placed cheekily on a buttock, almost aroused an “ooh” of sudden confidence from me, as I am after all so much better at drawing animals from behind than from the front.
It was though, as my drawings shown here testify, a confidence misplaced. I am, as I already well knew, not an artist. In fact, I barely attempted to fight this self-conviction and spent the second half of the last long pose staring vacantly at the model, like a bored voyeur.
But the crucial point is, I did not attend the life drawing class to discover in myself an artist. I went in the hope of not being discovered to be a non-artist – and in this, I think, I succeeded.