Women looking at women: the life class

A HUNDRED YEARS AGO women artists were fighting for their fight to be included in the life class. Although women artists are now trained at art school to draw from the nude, it is rarely questioned as to how much that inclusion depends on their acceptance of a male-dominated view of the model and the value of the life class itself.

We have very little information about the model’s experience of and opinions about their work in the life class. What we do know is that although there have always been models of both sexes, different races, all ages, shapes and sizes, the model has come to be seen as female, white, passive and sexually available, whilst the artist is invariably seen as being male, white, active and as virile as he is creative.

It is not acceptable to adopt the belief that the model, in her silence agrees with the dominant (artist’s) view held towards the life class. At a time when feminist discourse is being implemented to question accepted codes of practice and social behaviour it is our prerogative to ask what place does the life class occupy in contemporary culture and how can women working in the life room as tutors, students and models intervene.

Jonet Harley-Peters is an artist and lecturer. She has been teaching life drawing to all age groups for the last ten years and now teaches in a college of further education.

Julia Gash is an artist and writer whose involvement in the life class has been as tutor and life model. Over the past two years her work has been centred around the revaluation of the life class.


J.G. Jonet, relating to your experience as an art student in the sixties what changes, if any, can you see in the life room today?

J.H.P. I see very little–the strangle hold of life room practice based on the tradition of the Royal Academy is alive and kicking. I was at a small art school before the shake-up in art education as a result of the Coldstream report in the early sixties, which closed many art schools all over the country and changed the face of art education by introducing the short-lived Dip.A.D. There were women tutors in the college but none of them taught in the life room. Due to the difficulty of getting life models in a rural Devon market town, the college employed one model for the whole academic year, so I was brought up to regard the model as a personality and a friend. When I went to a large northern art college for post-graduate study, I discovered that male students were able to use and change models as often as they wanted. One model was popular for her long blonde hair and her willingness to pose in black underwear; it was at this point that I stopped using the life room. As I no longer attend life classes as a student, I am only aware of how male colleagues run their life classes when I drop in. I often see odd and uncomfortable poses fulfilling the stereotype of woman in a passive position and more often hear the classic comment which usually goes ‘Have you seen my new model?’ with hand and facial gestures filling in the missing information. It’s also interesting that male tutors will often talk about MY model indicating possession.

J.G. Do you feel that any changes have been made in the interests of women, are students and models any more aware of the broader implications of their own work and the image of the female nude?

J.H.P. It seems to me that there have only been changes where there happens to be a tutor with a non-sexist approach. I teach students aged 16-19 in further education; at this stage they are usually preoccupied with the technical aspects of painting and drawing. I am concerned to make them aware of the broader implications of working from the nude and it is much easier to achieve this with the help of an enlightened model; for this reason I try to work only with models I know. I have a woman colleague who is an artist and model as well as being a ceramics tutor in the same college as myself. I use her as a model in my life classes, where she frequently meets students from her ceramics classes. If the students are surprised to see their ceramics teacher posing in the nude they certainly don’t show it, it’s never a problem and it’s the best way that I have found of breaking down the preconceived roles of teacher and model.

J.G. How do you see your role as a life drawing tutor to students?

J.H.P. I want my students to enjoy learning to draw and paint. Working from life is particularly hard, the self-discipline and concentration needed by the student to spend even half a day in the life room is tremendous and it’s very hard when drawing skills are rudimentary to

maintain the necessary effort. My role as life drawing tutor is to build their confidence and enthusiasm so they are then able to tackle the very hard task of working from the human figure in a way that is creatively satisfying for the individual and allows them to learn how to draw well enough to fulfil the requirements of the curriculum. Having a relaxed and friendly model who participates in the class and is not passive in the way models are usually expected to be is essential for a successful life class.

J.G. Do you find that having to follow a specific curriculum is restrictive to the work of the students, the model and yourself?.

J.H.P. Inevitably, yes, but there is room for personal interpretation and I’m very good at bending rules and doing things the way I believe they should be done. Every now and again I slip in what I call experimental drawing classes and students are usually stunned when I announce I expect them to draw with their eyes closed, or take part in a drawing game that I call Chinese whispers, which involves not looking at the model at all, just copying the drawing of the person sitting on their left. One model I work with is very good at this sort of creative modelling and her contribution is essential in these classes.

J.G. I think you would agree that the female artist-tutor/female model relationship deviates from the traditional relationship of the male artist-tutor/female model. What differences do you feel there are in your approach and responsibilities to the model, to those of your male colleagues?

J.H.P. I feel that my approach is very different, I always use the model’s name rather than referring to her as ‘the model’. I like to take her advice in choosing the pose and I always ask her to take breaks whenever she feels she needs them, so that the typical situation of the tutor forgetting about the model’s break does not arise. When I employ a model I always book her for at least four weeks. This is so both the students and I can develop an ongoing relationship with her and also this helps her to plan her work commitments. Some male tutors I know only re-employ a model at the end of the class by casually asking ‘can you work for me next week?’. These tutors are often let down by the model not turning up and can’t understand why.

J.G. Does the curriculum encourage or even allow for a. critique which attempts to situate the image of the female nude in a social/historical context?

J.H.P. Absolutely not, the students are expected to work from the model and I am meant to teach in the time-honoured tradition of the liferoom; the fact that I encourage my model to participate in the class both physically and verbally, I encourage models to join in group discussions and crits, is something I do despite the curriculum. My male colleagues and certainly my head of department are largely unaware of my approach to teaching. I am the only woman who teaches life drawing in my department and as a part-timer my position is pretty lowly and isolated, the only influence I have in the institution is the effect I have on my students.

J.G. In your experience of working with art students do you find that the male students react differently to a model from the female students?

J.H.P. Not noticeably, however I have observed that both female and male students in this age group prefer to work from models of their own sex, this is I believe to do with identifying the ‘self” within the model; there is often an element of ‘self portrait’ in the drawing of the head of which the student is unconscious. For this reason I try to use female and male and black and white models. I find it very difficult to get black models of either sex. Male white models are also hard to find, I’m sure this is because the nude is assumed to be a woman; the male tutor will justify employing a female model in terms of aesthetics. It is clear that most men don’t see themselves as models; neither do black people and a quick flick through my art history books will show you why. The black and male models I use are mainly dancers, perfomers or musicians.

J.G. Have you ever taught in a women only situation?

J.H.P. Yes, by pure chance earlier this year a group of students was all female. At first we didn’t notice that there were no men in the group, but as the class progressed and a really good working atmosphere developed the model noticed that we were an all women group. The work produced by this group was wonderful due to a remarkably relaxed but hardworking approach that developed spontaneously. In the third week of this course a stray male student who had been absent wandered in. He was sent to join another group as by this time it was obvious that a man would have broken the intimacy that had developed. The class continued to go well and the students made great progress. It was a success because without men the level of anxiety that is often present in the life room disappeared, the sexual tension was gone and as a result it became easier for us all to work. It was the highlight of this academic year for me. I am keen to work in an all woman class again.

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J.G. Has your experience as a life drawing tutor had any influence on your work?

J.H.P. I have used the image of the female nude as a central theme in my work for the last twenty years. Teaching life drawing has been an excellent way of observing the female form. It has allowed me to become familiar with the female nude without having to pay to go to life classes myself. I feel that I learn as much from my students as they do from me; although teaching is at times undoubtedly draining and exhausting, the rewards in terms of stimulus for my own work are tremendous.

Some of the issues of the life room have been discussed in the Journal in the ‘Mouse Katz’ debate (Issues 20, 21, 22). Many women are deterred from working in the life class by feelings of ambiguity and guilt, so denying a genuine passion they may feel for life drawing and their right to make images of the naked female form which relates to their own experience as women. We want to open this debate further and would welcome response from readers.