It was long after I drew a nude self-portrait in front of the mirror that I realised why that drawing felt a bit awkward ; the bust was missing its right breast whilst I lost my left one ; I had been drawing my mirror image.
The female nude is one of the great traditions of western painting. I don’t think that the women in these paintings are typically nude because it makes sense for the narratives in which they’re depicted, but rather that their nudity is arranged by and for the (presumably) male spectator.
In his seminal book ‘Ways of Seeing’, John Berger points out that this entire system of gender relations is founded on a huge instance of hypocrisy: it presumes that the (male) spectator is a subjective individual, while denying the (female) subject any individual agency.
Berger states that from earliest childhood women have been taught and persuaded to survey themselves continually. “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.” “Men act” whilst “Women appear“.
This inequality and pressure on women is tangible all around us, just look at advertising, social media and reality TV. I wonder how we could use our ‘surveying skills’ in a more empowering way then for pleasing others and conforming to expectations.
Standing naked in front of that mirror, I had stopped doing anything else. I had halted my brain from joining the dots and making assumptions. I was surveying the moment and my reflection. With our clothes removed we cannot lie. I had created a space to explore my lopsidedness ; the damage and the wholeness. I was not doing this for anyone else but myself.
Drawing from life is a subtle, acute and thoughtful engagement with – and understanding of ourselves and the world around us. It makes us focus on the real beauty that is, not what is expected.
Women drawing female nudes, self-portrait or modelled, are addressing the classic duplicity of the old masters and inspire us to observe and focus on real beauty. Stop, look and listen…