Credit: Bruce Mars via Unsplash

Portraiture in the pandemic

By Natalia Pieniazek

The “new normal” and the nude.

This pandemic has turned the world upside down. It has halted schools’ and universities’ teaching in classrooms; restaurants serving food; local shops earning money; and artists painting life models in their studios.

From the perspective of a 19th century artist, there was nothing easier than finding a model to pose for a nude portrait or an everyday life scene. In plenty of books about French post-impressionism, you can learn about the models and muses of modern artists who were chatted up on the streets of Paris by painters. As a result, we can admire Manet’s Olympia, Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Toulouse-Lautrec’s La Toilette or Degas’s ballet dancers. However, a few months ago working with a life model, at universities or independent art classes, became impossible. Both the amateur and the professional artist could no longer walk in the post-impressionists’ shoes as the practice moved to online platforms such as Zoom. The question is, then, whether this is a well-working solution for the current situation and whether it’s one which artists can switch to long-term.

All The Young Nudes (ATYN) have been running Life Drawing Club since 2008. Life Drawing Club hosts classes open to people of artistic and non-artistic backgrounds. Inspired by her own art classes wherein teachers would criticise students’ works without allowing much freedom of creating, organiser Joanna Susskind decided to run these sessions on a weekly basis. Due to lockdown, classes could not take place at Sloans in Glasgow as they did before, and have now moved to an online platform. The description of the event states: “Poses in HD, excellent music to draw to, chatter + two hours of zoning out (together). Bring a glass of wine, draw in yer PJs.” What’s not to like? You can enjoy alcohol, and most of all, art from the comfort of your home. It certainly was a good solution for lockdown – but according to the ATYN website, the classes will come back to Sloans in January 2021, taking into consideration requirements of the “new normal”.

Another online class which has life models participate is one that used to take place at the Oxford Street Studio in Sydney, Australia. It has been held online ever since the rise of the pandemic. An art teacher who runs the classes optimistically looks at this way of teaching art: “People can join from wherever they are, like they don’t have to physically be in Sydney.  So, some people can join from different cities, maybe different countries, so that’s pretty good”, says Daniel Parra, for Reuters.

Johannes Ultri, a student of Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, does not see digital subject matter as the future of making art. His classes moved to Zoom in March and have since consisted of painting still life, such as prosecco bottles. Life models posing for a camera throughout the Spring semester weren’t an option for the university.  From this semester on, amongst all the classes at university, painting classes are the only ones that will be performed inside the studio. Making art for Johannes is not possible via the internet. Not only does working with a model in a studio give more room for manoeuvre, but also, a laptop screen simply makes the image flat and it doesn’t allow him to work with the light and space around the model. Working at the studio provides the freedom of moving around the room, spotting aspects which you would not be able to spot on the screen – and most of all, there is the social side. Whilst some of the students feel best working alone, others enjoy the occasional chat and a cigarette break with classmates.

Art historian Anna, who works in a London gallery, says that online drawing classes are a way to play up the idea that people are isolated, but this way of creating art will never be able to replace a session with a life model. Online image is a lot less crisp, less immediate, and it simply won’t be as lifelike. At the same time, Anna explains: “Whether you’re an amateur, or a professional artist, drawing is a practice, and so you have to continually engage with the practice; it is necessary to find other ways than live classes, whether it’s zoom or images.”

At the moment there are plenty of uncertainties. Thanks to some art classes moving online and becoming more accessible to everyone, we were able to fight lockdown blues and get creative, with the internet allowing us to pick up new crafty hobbies. It’s truly amazing that in the past six months we have found so many ways to keep ourselves busy, from Zoom pub quizzes to making Dalgona coffee, to running 5k for charity and, well, making art.  Technology can certainly replace some things and make our daily lives easier – yet in some aspects, such as art, human beings are irreplaceable. 


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