In life class you have a model sitting there, someone who is alive! It can be very personal. You talk to fill in awkward silences. Then as you draw, rather haltingly at first, strange event: you notice a soul. In the ineluctable silence that reasserts itself, you watch someone’s self as it registers in the face, the hands, the posture, in a thousand small disguises. Personality is a powerful thing. It projects itself quietly but relentlessly. You begin to notice, also, evidences of your own life passing quietly and slowly before you — like a movie playing in slow motion, this latter motion, this empathy needles and prods you and makes you squirm. Watching someone, who is not doing anything at all, because you specifically ask her not to do anything at all, is most discomforting.
You feel scruples about the model’s comfort. Is she getting tired? Is this session too long? Do we need a break? And all this, only moments into the model’s pose. Such scruples arise from the keen observation that feels like an assault on someone’s privacy. And maybe it’s your own, the artist’s privacy, for which you fear!
Models are really wonderful people to put up with having you stare at them. Doing a life class is the opposite of working from imagination, copying history’s motifs, or creating something from a photograph. Drawing from life, you are allowed the most direct experience of portraying other people, unmediated by anything except your perception and skill, and your quickness at emotionally uncoiling and unsquirming.
But doesn’t the name conjure up other associations as well? What would be the curriculum in a class on “life”? What should we learn first? With what insights will we graduate? It seems to me that the artist’s occupation brings one very close to the discovery of life’s curriculum. You can paint any subject. You strive to discover and to reveal meaning.
What are some of the topics? In the floral bouquet: botany. In the nude: anatomy, psychology, passion. In landscape: geology and topography. In history painting: human drama and fate. In the interior — in the scene that takes place in a room: the private life and decor.
Animal pictures, cabinets of curiosity, insects, inanimate objects of still life, dress, fashion … the list is endless. We can study the ant at our feet or the stars over our heads. Or we can study the quiet self that sits placidly before our eyes, that makes an artist uneasy by the fact of her wonderful aliveness!
[Top of the post: Woman in white by Aletha Kuschan, oil on canvas]