model, artist's

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model, artist's Although models have been used since classical times, it was only with the establishment of life-drawing academies in the sixteenth century that working from the living human figure became a staple activity of artistic training in the West. Male academic models comprised most of the profession until the nineteenth century, when female models, hitherto privately hired, were first permitted to pose in state-sponsored academies in Europe and the US. The figure of the nude model achieved an apotheosis during this period. With the ascendancy of the female model the nude took on a number of cultural meanings: having embodied the lofty purities of unmediated nature or classical formalism, and the frail contingencies of innocence or desire, the model also came to represent the gritty freedom of bohemia, and the stylish glamour of fashionable society.

In the art of the abstract, commercial twentieth century, models have resumed their two basic functions: presenting visual information about the body, and conveying visual effects with the body that will stimulate work in an artist. The method, however, varies greatly. In a drawing class, where the primary aim is to study the figure, models usually make their own poses, in accordance with an instructor's agenda. A sculptor working alone might position a model's body very precisely to study a particular visual phenomenon: light falling on a muscle insertion, a proportional relationship. Models can also be called upon to embody moods or ideas. An abstract painter might observe a model moving autonomously through a sequence of gestures from which to derive non-figurative images. The work ranges from that of a movie stand-in, who replicates a pre-existing image and sustains it for the purposes of observation, to a dancer, who enacts drama and composes space by means of bodily expression. Artists' models thus inhabit a rather curious intersection of seemingly contradictory modes of embodiment: stasis and movement, activity and passivity, authority and submission. Physically, they have to exert themselves in order to remain motionless. As a performer, the model also projects a self-image that is thoroughly convincing and yet fulfills other people's imaginative demands. The job of posing is unquestionably gruelling and mundane: the most creative and spontaneous session is always ultimately a matter of endurance, flexibility, and timing. Yet the intimacy of the studio and the aspiration lurking in even the humblest forms of artistic labour are likewise undeniable, as are the potent and intricate politics of looking and showing. The artist demands a pose, the model complies; but once the model assumes the pose, the artist must pay attention. Nude or clothed, the model's motionless body becomes the prime mover of the artist's eye and hand. However engulfed in the quotidian they may be, artist and model relations are susceptible to inflections of eroticism, idealism, or romance.

Elizabeth Hollander


Borel, F. (1990). The seduction of Venus: artists and models. Albert Skira, Geneva.
Borzello, F. (1982). The artist's model. Junction Books, London.