Art and order

We think of art as a form of creative expression. It hasn’t always been that way.
Fowling scene from the Tomb of Nebamun, c. 1350 BC, courtesy British Museum. He’s with his wife, daughter and their tabby cat, relaxing in the afterlife.
Contemplating contrapposto (counterpoise)—as I did on Wednesday—inevitably makes me think about the art of ancient Egypt. Contrapposto is the door that separates modern sensibility from ancient thinking. On our side lies personal expression, naturalism, self-direction and change. On the other side was tradition, continuity and ritual. The Egyptians never stepped through.
In fact, looking at Egyptian culture as a whole is like looking at a distorted mirror image of our modern selves. Consider the very useful Pythagorean theorem. The relationship it describes was known to the Egyptians as early as 2000 BC as lists of numbers, but the ability to upgrade that into a predictive formula was lost on them. We had to wait until around 500 BC for the Greeks. This was not for lack of scientific intelligence, for the Egyptians were great builders, miners, and chemists. 
Mortuary figurine of a woman; 4400–4000 BC; crocodile bone. The workmanship gets more sophisticated over time, but the character and pose remain unchanged. Courtesy the Louvre.
Egyptian culture came into being as people were compressed into the Nile River Valley by desertification. Irrigation supported the development of a stable Egyptian culture. By the New Kingdom it was very powerful indeed, reaching around the Levant and down through the Nile Valley.
Egypt was both a fruitful and precarious place to live. Drought and famine were ever-present threats. The Nile, which gave Egypt life, was also home to deadly snakes and spiders, hippopotami and crocodiles. It’s no surprise that theirs was a very structured society. Going outside the rules could be fatal.
Wooden statue of the scribe Kaaper; c. 2450 BC; wood, copper and rock crystal, courtesy Egyptian Museum (Cairo).
In fact, order and continuity were the very hallmarks of Egyptian culture. Ancient Egypt was a series of stable kingdoms, divided by short, painful bursts of instability. These are the times we tend to study, because they’re so interesting. Take for example, the Amarna Period. Around 1350 BC, Amenhotep IV ascended the throne and instituted a series of reforms. He changed his name to Akhenaten, promoted the sun deity Aten as the sole deity, suppressed other gods, and moved his capital to the new city of Akhetaten.
But our fascination with the sun-worshipping pharaoh was not shared by his successors. Subsequent pharaohs, TutankhamunAy, and Horemheb, pointedly worked to erase Akhenaten’s name, ideas and works from Egyptian history. It was back to business as usual in Egypt.
Egyptian statue of the Persian king Darius the Great, c. 500 BC. The robes are Hellenistic, the pose is resolutely Egyptian. Courtesy National Museum of Iran. 
This same conservatism can be seen in their art. It spans a vastly long period as human civilizations go—from the 31st century BC to the 4th century AD. Through most of that time, it changed glacially slowly. Only at the very end, when Egypt was ruled by Achaemenid satraps and the Ptolemy pharaohs, did Hellenistic influences begin to bleed into Egyptian culture. And even then, the changes were subtle.
Of course, most surviving Egyptian art comes from tombs and temples. Religious art is, by nature, conservative and symbolic. Thus, Egyptian art might give us more insight into their religion than into their aesthetic ideas.
But of what we know, Egyptian art was essentially functional and bound up in ideology. There’s an amazing amount of it intact: paintings, drawings, pottery, jewelry, sculpture, architecture, glass and amulets.
But none of it is individual. Unlike the ancient Greeks, we can’t identify Egyptian artists, schools or styles. That’s because ritual art precludes individual expression. The poses, clothing and regalia, colors, and skin tones were all symbolic. Even the delightful worlds recreated in paint on the walls of tombs were idealized.
Art, in such a world, serves the purpose of maintaining cosmic order, rather than exploring new truths. And yet, even here, in the eyes of a scribe or the beating of wings among the reeds, you see glimpses of life. It’s mesmerizing.

A short history of the art model

Our naked selves have always been with us, but the nude art model is a relatively new phenomenon.

The Toilet of Venus (The Rokeby Venus), 1644, Diego Velázquez, courtesy National Gallery of London. He painted at least three nudes despite the official disapproval of the Spanish crown.
Although ancient Egyptians wore a minimal amount of clothing, nudity in their art meant a defenseless state, often representing the dead or vanquished foes. The earliest reference to figure modeling is a legend about the fifth-century BC Greek painter, Zeuxis. It was said that he couldn’t find a woman beautiful enough to represent Helen of Troy, so he used features from five models. He is also reputed to have died of laughter after an older, wealthy patron insisted on modeling for Aphrodite. There is no doubt that the Greeks used real models; the courtesan Phryne modeled for Praxiteles’ Aphrodite of Knidos, the first life-size female nude in western art. Sadly, all these works are lost to us today.
The ancient Greeks also bequeathed us contrapposto, or counterpoise. This means the figure standing with most of its weight on one foot so that its shoulders and arms twist from the hips and legs. 
Kritios Boy, c. 480 BC, is the first known example of contrapposto. Courtesy Acropolis Museum.
With the rise of Rome, art modeling disappeared in the west. It didn’t return until the late Renaissance. Michelangelo and Raphael started the study of the nude body. However, they didn’t intend to paint their models nude; they were just trying to understand the figure better for clothed painting.
In general, artists used their apprentices—always boys and young men—to model whatever figures they needed. There were exceptions, include Raphael, who made nude drawings of his mistress, and Lorenzo Lotto and Caravaggio, who used prostitutes as life models.
But in general, if non-apprentice models were used, they had a personal relationship to the artist. Many of these relationships are legendary: Rembrandtand his beloved Saskia, Botticelli and Simonetta Vespucci, Raphael and Margarita Luti. The working model, paid for his or her labors, did not yet exist.
Study of Kneeling Nude Girl for the Entombment, c. 1500-1501, black chalk, pen and ink, and white pigment on paper, Michelangelo. This is believed to be the first nude figure study in western art. Courtesy the Louvre.
The tension within Christendom about naked bodies was most extreme in the court of the art-loving Spanish King Philip IV, patron of Velázquez. Velázquez could paint the reclining Rokeby Venus under the king’s protection, because Philip owned many nudes himself. At the same time, painting or owning nudes—or even portraits in the fashionably-low necklines of the day—was officially discouraged.
In the 19th century, with the atelier system of training firmly established, professional artists’ models begin to appear. Olympe Pélissierwas a courtesan and model in Paris; she had been sold into sexual slavery twice as a teenage girl. Victorine Meurent (Édouard Manet’s Olympia) was a painter in her own right. Fanny Eaton was a Jamaican mixed-race charwoman who had a short, meteoric career modeling for the Pre-Raphaelites; her exotic features could represent a variety of characters. Fanny Cornforth was the model for, and mistress of, Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
Cornforth’s career was indicative of a disturbing trend that continued into the 20th century. Earlier artists painted women with whom they were intimate; the new artists became intimate with women they painted.
Study of a Seated Nude Woman Wearing a Mask, 1863-66, Thomas Eakins, courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art. Modesty in Victorian ateliers was preserved by a mask for women and a loincloth for men.
Even as the need for figure and anatomy studies was publicly acknowledged, prudishness dictated that men wore loincloths and women had their faces covered while modeling. By 1886, Thomas Eakins had been teaching at the Pennsylvania Academy for ten years. He had transformed it into the leading art school in America.
In January 1886, lecturing about anatomy to a mixed-gender class, Eakins removed a loincloth from a male model so that he could trace the musculature of the pelvis (which supports the back and, in turn, the whole human body). He was forced to resign.
The 20th century brought a decline in figure painting as an art form, largely due to the decline of, historical and narrative painting. Still, drawing the human figure from life is considered a great way to learn draftsmanship. This is in part because the hierarchy of genres considered people more important than landscape or objects. It’s also because we have a connection to other people.
I’ll be teaching a class about modeling for the Knox County Art Society on Saturday, September 7. For more information, see here.

That finely-tuned, whole-body drawing machine

Bella and Jake practice standing in counterpose.

Yesterday, I stepped up to Jake’s easel to demonstrate stealth gesture drawing. Our subject was Bella, who was deeply absorbed in drawing tiny redbud blossoms. Bella, who is athletic and graceful, was standing like a column in front of her easel, a perfect plumb-line from her head to her pressed-together high-tops. “How do you even do that?” I asked her. “I would fall over.”

What is perfect for gymnastics or dancing may not be perfect for drawing. Nobody would ever accuse me of perfect posture. Nevertheless, I work standing at an easel for hours at a time.
I pondered my own stance while drawing. My non-dominant (right) leg was bearing my weight. My left foot was turned so the outside of my toe-box was touching the ground. This provided a pivot point to control my position, allowing my spine to move in concert with my drawing arm. Not that I stand like this all the time, or that any two successful artists do it the same way, but a good drawing stance is dynamic.
The Peplos Kore, c 530 BC, was clearly drawing (ahem). She’s also standing in counterpose (contrapposto). Although she’s using her left hand, her weight is on her left leg. (Acropolis Museum, Athens)
“Bella,” I said, “try standing on one foot and see if it changes your drawing style.” The difference was significant. Her mark-making was immediately lighter and more controlled.

Jake didn’t just stand around in counterpose… he also drew this house.

We all know that painting while seated yields different results from painting while standing. (The former gives better control; the latter yields freer expression.) So it stands to reason that standing differently gives different results as well. The human body is a wonderful, finely-tuned machine. Change one parameter, and everything else adjusts to fit. 

(On that note, did you know there is not one but many arches to the foot, and they act as springs? Awesome design, that!)
We have a good time in the studio, on the street, and in the park.  And if you’re interested in joining us for a fantastic time in mid-Coast Maine this summer, check here for more information.