Many years ago I was giving a presentation on oil painting techniques to Art students at the Minneapolis Art Institute, a wonderful institution which combined an Art School and a prestigious State Art Gallery under one roof.
During a ‘question and answer session’ at the end of my talk, a female student asked me, ”Why do we have to paint and draw nudes?” There was an anger in the tone of her question. I think that I heard the word ”misogyny” coming from other girls in other parts of the room.
”There’s a very good book called ”The Nude” by Kenneth Clarke and I think that it will answer most of your questions. I am sure that it is in your library.” My answer may have sounded a little condescending. The questioner was soon supported by several other angry Minnesotan girls. ”Kenneth Clarke is probably a man!”
”Okay!” I said, ”Let me recommend the Sistine Chapel in Rome. Rembrandt’s ‘Danae’. Michelangelo’s ‘David’. Velasquez’s ‘Rokeby Venus’. Everything by Rubens. Manet’s ‘Olympia’ and ‘Dejeuner sur l’Herbe’. Do Picasso’s nudes count?” I realised that I was not winning the argument. Nobody in the room was taking notes. Another angry woman tried to claim that my list of great works of art employing nude motifs were merely ”elitist pornography”.
A young man at the back of the lecture theatre interrupted, ”Sorry Sir, Minnesota is full of angry women!” that remark triggered a raucous shouting match which I took as a signal to conclude my talk.
That episode haunted me for many years. I would give a very different response to the angry girl’s perfectly legitimate question these days.
I would say that the act of drawing another human being is not really about making a nice picture; it is about learning how to look. The finished drawing or painting is merely the evidence of a process of seeing, measuring, responding. For the figure to be nude, undressed, undisguised, naked, raises the stakes. Another human being is presented to you for your awe, for your wonder. And in your drawing, in your gazing, there is the possibility of a journey of exploration and enquiry, the implication that the journey could be a pilgrimage to an understanding, not just of that other human being, but of yourself as well.
To that angry Minnesotan girl I would say, ”Just do it. But do it as best you can. Draw as hard as you can. Look as deeply as you can. Look at all the creases and the folds, at all the different softnesses, find the skeleton under the flesh. Give it your best shot. See the muscles flex. Find out who this person you are drawing is. Then, and only then, will you understand why it is so important, so vitally important to draw and paint the nude.”