December 2011 – January 2012

The Nation Reviewed

The sitting act

By Charlotte Wood
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
Portrait Painting

In my early twenties I earned money sitting for life drawing classes at the small and beloved art school in my university town. I was by no means alone – it was a popular way for students to earn cash. But some friends worried: how could I expose myself like that, sitting naked before strangers?

In fact I didn’t feel exposed at all. The human body, after all – especially when young, smooth and unmarked by life – is a rather anonymous thing. The teacher once gave me a drawing he had done of me; thin, almost hipless, cross-legged and viewed from the back, the figure is all spine and angled thighs and knees. Later, a man who saw the drawing on my wall asked, “Who’s that bloke?”

This sense of anonymity was echoed when I took classes on the other side of the easel. I found the model’s body before me quickly became nothing more personal, more animate, than a still-life bowl or apple. Nothing but planes and tones and lines, a problem to be solved. I liked the lack of sentiment in this, in rejecting the trite notion that a soul is bared when clothes are removed.

More than 20 years later, a painter I know a little asked if I would sit for a portrait. I baulked, but felt a sense of artistic duty: she was a painter, I was a writer. Artists should support one another. And anyway, what was there to be afraid of?

When I arrived for the first sitting I saw some of her other portraits on the wall – small, light, well-composed pictures. I did not admit that perhaps what I liked most about them was their poster-like flatness, what I saw as a preoccupation with colour and design as much as with portraiture. The faces were stylised, the strokes spare. No detail. I was relieved.

And so I sat. We agreed not to talk, so my friend could focus on the work. I was glad. Later, I realised it was because the silence made it easier for me to hide. It is confronting to be so closely scrutinised – the gaze upon one’s face, rather than body – for hours at a stretch. My response was to drift into a kind of psychic absence. I did it on purpose, allowing myself to believe that it was right and proper. Sitting for long periods in silent stillness led one quite naturally into this state, after all. It felt akin to meditation in its departure from the physical plane. I watched my friend as she stepped forward and back from the canvas with charcoal or brush, murmuring little self-admonishments or grunts of approval, but on some important level I was not there. If I had been pressed to articulate my feelings, I would have said the portrait was hers to paint, not mine to interfere with. I thought my job was to disappear.

Some time after the portrait was finished (I admired its boldness and composition, though found myself unnerved by the dead relatives – mother, aunts – whose faces arose from mine on the canvas) I began wondering about this matter of disappearance in portraits.

James Lord’s slender 1965 classic, A Giacometti Portrait, is a daily account of sitting for Alberto Giacometti in Paris over 18 days. Each beautifully spare report of the day’s sitting is accompanied by a photograph of the work in progress. In art critic Martin Gayford’s more recent Man with a Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud (2010), the sitting takes place over seven months. Both books reveal much about the symbiosis of sitter and painter.

Gayford at first describes the experience as “somewhere between transcendental meditation and a visit to the barber’s”, but soon reveals the experience as far more demanding. It is “remorselessly intimate,” with an element of “sheer endurance”. “LF and I are roped together, and I am willing him to keep going.” At another point, he describes Freud’s work as a task of intimate truth-telling.

Lord’s experience is no less intense. He shares Giacometti’s bouts of doubt and despair when the work is going badly. The hours draw forth “a sense of exceptional intimacy in the almost supernatural atmosphere of give and take that is inherent in the acts of posing and painting. The reciprocity at times seems almost unbearable.” Both narratives grow tenser and tenser as the pictures approach completion; both sitters mentally urge the painters on, willing the portrait to succeed.

In my youth I had always known I wasn’t an especially good life model, although I didn’t know why. It was simply clear, when the painters spoke, which rare sitters they considered wonderful models. It seemed to have nothing to do with physical appearance. Now I wonder if the difference between a good model and the rest is in the former’s willingness to be present, compared with the absent state I instinctively scuttled into.

On reading Gayford’s and Lord’s books, I thought at first it was perhaps because in both cases the sitters and painters were good friends beyond the studio, and the sittings were lengthy, that the models felt so collaboratively part of the creative act in a way that I had not. But I think now they were simply better models: more alive to the process, more generous and braver than I was. They showed me something important, and I felt a wash of light regret at how I had evaded my responsibilities – and a potentially profound experience – as a sitter. I see now that my instinct for disappearing, for anonymity, was really a fear of being observed. I feel certain now the best portraits are those in which the subject has had the courage and the generosity to accept the intimacy – and be seen.

Charlotte Wood
Charlotte Wood is the author of The Children, The Submerged Cathedral, Pieces of a Girl and, most recently, Animal People. Her non-fiction book about cooking, Love & Hunger, will be released in April 2012. @charlotteshucks

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