I ONCE posed in the nude for an art class. Rest assured it was long ago – I was young and the model was always offered the comfort of a space heater.
It was a spur of the moment decision to strip down. A student of the class, I had forgotten to bring with me the required art materials for that day’s particular assignment – maybe it was charcoals – and the arranged model didn’t show up. And while it was awkward at first appearing in front of my classmates (would it make going to the pub after, uneasy?), I was a typically skint art student and the money was pretty good. After a few minutes in the buff I actually felt quite relaxed.
I was reminded of this when the National Portrait Gallery unveiled its annual BP award winner this week. One of my colleagues in the office practically shielded his eyes when Aleah Chapin’s bold nude portrait appeared on my screen. The painting, part of a series the artist calls The Aunties Project, features an old, and unnamed, family friend.
You just have to love gallery folk. Sandy Nairne, the director of the National Portrait Gallery merely commented that the picture was “ambitious and beautifully painted” with “superbly controlled colour and tone”.
No mention of the obvious, which was that this less-than-nubile portrait subject was starkers. Her face is rendered as that of a kindly woman, the sort that you’d imagine would, fully clothed, be down at the garden centre. But there she is staring at you in all her fleshly, wrinkled glory, a slight smirk on her face and her breasts without the benefit of the cantilevering offered by a sensible bra.
If you get yourself down to the portrait gallery on Edinburgh’s Queen Street, you will not see many nudes. But you will if you go around the corner and up the Mound to the National Gallery, which has nude sculptures, paintings, drawings, you name it. It’s a veritable flesh fest in there.
Nudity is conventional in art and while portraiture is art, it tends to put its art-world cred to the service of representing people you might know. It takes a rare person who wishes to preserve their likeness in expensive oils for future generations to enjoy without the benefit of a nice outfit.
In the gallery of fine art, you will see plenty of flesh but you won’t know their names. One of the most famous nude portraits, Manet’s Olympia, caused a stir in 19th-century Paris because the look on model Victorine Meurent’s face is a bit fierce. But she is still known to history as Olympia, not Victorine Meurent. This is because classical themes had been used by painters for centuries to provide a flimsy academic cover up the fact that, “Cor, she’s naked”.
The furore in Paris caused by Manet was also because, previous to this, no one really bothered much to look at the faces of the naked subjects.
Down in London, you’d imagine that the portrait gallery decided to have a bit of fun by choosing the provocative Auntie for the £25,000 prize.
That it is a nude portrait makes it unusual. It also highlights how we are much more accustomed to seeing Aliya, 23, who likes Fake Bake and kittens, in the buff on page three. Now we have post-watershed TV programmes on Channel 4 to get our fix of an eyeful, if that is what is called for. Worse, the internet caters for every outlandish voyeuristic taste, although the prevalence of surgically-enhanced blondes with bee- stung lips seems to suggest a favoured type (I’d be making a guess based on anecdotal evidence here though, not having done the full research I have to admit).
Chapin’s Auntie, on the other hand, is actually disturbing in its painterly, but uncompromising, view of aging flesh.
I feel for Auntie, who with any luck can sneak some gin in a tea cup and have a laugh with her friends about her new-found notoriety. Back in my nude modelling days, or rather day, walking around the easels (robed, natch) seeing how my fellow art students saw my figure actually freaked me out.
I had to resist the urge to tell a few of them to give up the paintbrushes, honey, as the horror of my dimpled flesh in charcoal and gouache stared back at me. But instead, I kept my counsel and we all continued to go to the pub together in the following days and weeks. At least they were all professional about it, if not all particularly talented. Although now, perhaps, I wish I had kept one. I could have offered it up to the portrait gallery.
Search for a job
Search for a car
Search for a house
Weather for Edinburgh
Thursday 23 May 2013
Temperature: 5 C to 10 C
Wind Speed: 25 mph
Wind direction: North west
Temperature: 3 C to 13 C
Wind Speed: 20 mph
Wind direction: North east