“You make it look so easy!”. That’s been remarked to me several times after a pose. And while I am sincerely flattered by the compliment, I’m not so certain I agree. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers made it look easy. So did Joe DiMaggio and Rudolf Nureyev. All of us, myself included, are amazed when performers of all types appear effortless. As if their amazing feats barely caused them to strain, break a sweat, or, worst of all, second guess their ability. But with the exception of some human freak of nature, for us mere mortals it’s all an illusion.
I would be terribly remiss if I didn’t concede the role of artists in helping me come across as “effortless”. They know better than to incorporate a model’s agonizing pain and discomfort into their painting. That would make for a delightful piece of artwork, don’t you think? Possible titles could include “Woman Grimacing”, “Figure in Pain”, or “Nude on the Brink of a Physical Collapse”. Put those winners in the Met, why not?
In a long pose, it is the art model’s responsibility – duty even – to project the most poise and composure that is humanly possible under the circumstances. We are expected not only to hold still, but hold still with aplomb. Throw elegance and balance into the mix, and you’ve got one top-notch art model in your midst. Better make sure your painting does a good job capturing the magic.
I’m fortunate to have an image to illustrate my point. It’s a painting of me done by a bold and talented artist, Janet Cook. This pose was set up in Mary Beth McKenzie’s class last year. After 45 minutes behind closed doors, just me and the two class monitors, we finally agreed on this pose, which I volunteered. It looks great and everyone was pleased, but it was tough. For a few reasons. See my right hand? Under natural, less pressured circumstances one would put all their weight into that hand. But for a three hour pose, don’t even think about it. The weight has to be hijacked by a stronger part of the body. Art models, remember my earlier post about the abdominals? There’s the answer. Then there’s the twist in the torso, speaking of the abdominals. This was quite a deep twist, as you can tell from Janet’s superb rendering. That’s lower spine problems. Yes, it hurts. Then there is the arrangement of the legs. In an attempt to make the pose look more “active”, I positioned the right leg lifted off the ground instead of lying flat. Doing that also provides more “negative space” for the artists. It’s hard to hold, and before you know it you’re in a battle of wills with your thigh. It wants to drop down, but you’re forcing it to stay lifted in midair. By the end of the day, you and your thigh are not even on speaking terms.
So here we have a pose that demands strength, stability, and balance. And while trying to meet those physical demands, your mind is searching for equanimity and serenity – or at least, the illusion of those things. With an enormous amount of help from Janet – her skill and vision – we managed to create the image of a strong, self-possessed woman. Cool, in control and unperturbed. Man if only I were those things in real life! Illusion indeed.
Here I am by Janet Cook. Oil on panel, 2007: