The naked truth about life models

Ever wondered what’s going on in the heads of those who pose for artists? Here, Emma Goldman lifts the lid on her thoughts

Thursday, 5th May — By Emma Goldman

Life model

WHEN I arrive for my second session with the life modelling group, I am almost expecting to find old friends. After all, getting naked for someone, or in this case several someones simultaneously, leaves an expectation of intimacy.

I open the little red door to the now-familiar space with the skylights and find Andre the tutor setting up easels and just three people from last week’s circle of eight: Lucy a 91-year-old recent Fine Arts graduate, Tina from my local yoga class, and glamorous Rose, who in the break insisted that as the model I should have the last chocolate biscuit.

Rose and Tina are playing catch with a stuffed ball and Lucy is tying a multi-coloured scarf around her head, knotting it in the nape of her long, elegant neck. Where is everyone?

“People don’t always turn up every week,” Andre says with a frown.

I recall one scarily attractive man who close up turned out to be thin and robbed of light. His trembling hands clasped a mug of tea as his eyes darted. His drawing was flattering but also diffused with an indefinable sorrow that seemed nothing to do with me. I wonder why he isn’t here and hope he is all right.

I go to change into my dressing gown. It still feels strange to take off my clothes but not as much as last week.

On the door of the cubicle is a list of things you as a woman can do to build your confidence and “claim your space.”

One is simply to speak up if you feel uncomfortable. It brings to mind my failure to say anything when the 20-minute standing yoga pose I chose last time started to be uncomfortable. I preferred to suffer in silence than to say anything.

If women in the past were like me, no wonder some died of embarrassment.

Before I know it, I am out on the floor and naked again.

A couple of men arrive late but still the group consists only of six.

“Must be the rain,” Lucy says. “People see a few drops of water and change their minds.”

After a few warm-up, three-minute poses, we move from drawing to collage. The table is scattered with different coloured paper, including tissue and crepe, and newsprint.

“I’ve never done collage,” Rose says. “I haven’t a clue.”

“I’ve done it but 20 years ago,” says Tina. “So, don’t look at me!”

“Are you going to help us?” Lucy asks Andre.

Placing my hands on my hips, I twist around so I am looking over my shoulder.

“That’s it!” Andre exclaims. “Movement in the body!”

“Was I too static last time?” I ask, immediately self-doubting.

“What you’re doing now is perfect,” he replies diplomatically.

In the subsequent longer poses, I am careful to avoid complex yoga stands, sticking with what I know I can hold. But even they are a challenge.

As modelling is ceasing to be a novelty, I understand it is demanding, not just physically but mentally. The 30- and then new, 40-minute positions seem longer than they claim. I begin wishing I could read my book, and alternate between trying to think and trying to empty my mind.

Neither works and I remain in a ticking, no-man’s land.

Rose is collaging me from behind, Lucy from the front, the rest a mixture of the two.

“Why have you done a face?” I hear Andre say to glamorous Rose.

“A face? What are you talking about Andre? That’s the back of the head! This is her hair.”

“It looks like a face.”

“How can it look like a face? See this orange paper? That’s hair, Andre. OK, if you want, I’ll give her more but I don’t see how you can mistake it for. And this is the back!”

“But this doesn’t quite look like a back. It’s…”

“Oh, go away, Andre! This is my art!”

One of the men gently laughs but Lucy, Tina, and the others appear not to hear, concentrating on their own creations.

At the end, when I pull on my gown and walk to see Rose’s collage, I expect a child’s mess up. What I see is a woman from behind with long, orange crepe paper falling down an undulating back, a waist like a mermaid’s and a Botticelli bottom. It reminds me of being a child, gazing at my shadow on the grass in the evening sun and wishing my real-life legs could be as long as those created by trick of light. Back then, I stood dreaming of how, if only I looked like my lengthening shadow, everything would be different.

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