A Monumental Presence (perspectives in life-drawing)

In life-drawing workshops, we typically place models on a stand. The practice may be more fitting, and hold more meaning for us as artists, than we realize. This essay is an attempt to show ways in which visual perspective affects perception; ways in which traditional approaches to visual perspective discriminate against women; and ways in which artists and models together can work to alter both perspective and perception.

At first thought, it seems surprising that a model usually poses on a place somewhat higher than the people drawing are placed. In studios and workshops where model stands are not available, artists often prefer to sit on the floor rather than to stand. The common explanation for this phenomenon is that artists like to have their eyes level with the midpoint of what they are depicting: in this situation, their eyes are as level as possible with the midpoint of the body of the standing model. The common explanation of this is probably true, as far as it goes: if the middle of what I am drawing belongs in the middle of what I am painting, I want it equidistant from the outside edges in my own perception, as well. However, this explanation seems insufficient for three reasons. 1) the artist determines both midpoint and edges in the picture. 2) “midpoint” has much wider implications than the visual alone. 3) perception of people at midpoint is unlikely under circumstances of ordinary encounter, where heads come closer to head-level than to midpoint level.

Quite often, in a choice of midpoint and borders for a piece of art work, things really do seem to fall into place, and the artist lets that “falling into place” serve as the guideline for how the art work is to turn out. Where people are part of the picture, they may or may not take center stage: they may be shunted aside, so that their absence from primary consideration has grave importance, or they may be simply a part of a message which includes them, but which they do not dominate.

Changing Viewpoint
Historically, what is the midpoint of a person is an interesting matter. Late medieval and early renaissance western culture, took it for granted that the midpoint of the body is the navel. This understanding was countered by the Vitruvian man (best known to us as illustrated by Leonardo Da Vinci), showing that, in an adult, both the visual and the mechanical center of the body are normally located in the genital area.

Interestingly, Vitruvius and his followers still clung to the navel as somehow a center – showing that the navel is the center of a circle that can be described by the fingertips of uplifted and outstretched arms, and from the outstretched arms to the toes. For infants, the visual and mechanical center of the body is found at the navel; patterns of movement change as we grow older, and our center of gravity moves from our navel to an area just above the groin. The reason that toddlers and adults afflicted with dwarfism toddle is not because they do not know how to walk correctly. It is because they walk correctly for people whose center of gravity is at their waists.

Examination of medieval and early renaissance illustrations, particularly of the nude, show that the perspective of artists is from slightly above the person drawn, exaggerating the roundedness of shoulders, of upper breasts and of upper abdomen, showing plenty of hair, increasing the size of the head, decreasing the length and thickness of the legs, and offering the navel (correctly, from this perspective), as the visual midpoint of the body.

Artists since the time of Da Vinci, accepting his viewpoint (a viewpoint shared by scientists and by tape measures), that the genital region is central, have had to face the fact that, as people reach adulthood, sex becomes central. For much of art since that time, we have treated this fact almost as though it were the empty eye of a hurricane: the only part of the storm that can be treated quietly, or even ignored. Up until more recent art of the nude, artists often covered genitals, posed models and sitters so that genitals were concealed, skipped genitals and pubic hair, or exaggerated other aspects of the body so that the genital area is diminished to inconsequence: these practices allowed the midpoint its correct mechanical relevance, and silently declared that – for art – sexual relevance should be downplayed.

Perhaps the clearest example of deliberate change in viewpoint away from head-to-head to head-to-middle occurs in monumental art: sculptures (and, to a lesser extent, murals), designed for exhibition in public space. Here, art work is displayed well above eye level, and often is designed precisely to be seen from below. This is so true regarding men, clothed or unclothed, even to be deemed officious. Statues of women – especially of women without clothes – when they are depicted in public art, are most frequently found as adjuncts to statues of men, and are almost certain to be presented in a perspective wherein they look as though we were seeing them head to head, or from above, even if we are seeing them from below. Artemis and Aphrodite, with their Roman alter-egos, seem gentle, fragile, and protected. There are exceptions among statues of women: Pallas Athena and Hera (Juno) are women in command of things. A ‘Junoesque” woman is big in a very different sense from the way a “Rubenesque” woman is big. A Rubenesque woman has large breasts, thighs, and hips, ready for care and attention: a Junoesque woman is in charge. We see her from below, and recognize her power. The women drawn and sculpted by Henry Moore tend to be Junoesque. Perhaps the best-known Junoesque sculpture in the United States is the Statue of Liberty.
There is one woman who is almost always presented in Western art as someone to look up to, but almost never as Junoesque, except in art of the Byzantine era. That woman is the Virgin Mary. Her power is not that of a goddess, present in her of her own right: it is power given by God, fully present in her by that gift. She is a fragile creature whose soul magnifies the Lord.

A Child’s View
Perhaps the easiest way to understand “the monumental presence”, and through this to understand the favorite perspective of many artists towards models, is to compare the viewpoint of a standing adult toward a standing three-year-old child with the viewpoint of that child toward the adult. A parent looking down at a child sees much gentle protection: hair covering head, eyebrows over eyelids, eyelids over eyes, nose covering nostrils, upper lip over lower lip, chin and jaw shielding neck, belly over genitals: the tenderest parts are farthest away, and most protected. A child’s perspective toward a parent is just the opposite: genitals flowing from belly, nipples pointing from breasts, jaw growing away from neck, upper lip jutting over lower lip, nostrils opening into nose, eyes wide under eyelids, under brows. Armpits and groin are filled with hair, which is filled with scent: this hair – so thick when seen from above – almost disappears when seen from below, leaving genitals and armpits themselves quite clearly exposed. The tenderest adult parts are closest to the child: least protected, most open: most powerful, most vulnerable.

In ordinary life, the two perspectives described here serve to remind those of us who are adults that we have a responsibility to help and care for children, and remind children of what they have a right to expect in the way of care from adults. To illustrate this point, notice how confused a small child seems when an older person holds that child above eye-level to look at. Fear of falling may be part of the reason for this, but the child also feels vulnerable and, in a sense, helpless. Where a child feels deeply trustful, the vulnerability is offered freely, and with delight. When people get elderly or are otherwise debilitated, they tend to lie down or sit down more often than when they are in “prime condition”. Even an older child can see them from an “adult” perspective, and recognize their need for care. This is quite helpful in the process of growing up, and is something that makes grandparents very valuable.

Perspective and Perception
On “the stand”, artist’s eyes to midpoint, the model gets close to the viewpoint an adult has of a child, while the artist returns – to some extent – to the child’s viewpoint: restoring with that viewpoint, at its best, the wide-eyed wonder we attribute to children, but which needs to belong as part of us all our lives. In monumental art, the child’s perspective (though not always the child’s wonder), is almost completely restored.

Sexual equality will gain from presentation of women with similar openness, so that what is most desirable is also most revered: most wanted, most feared; fiercest, most comforting; most frightening, most peaceful, in an ever-changing, heady, confusing mix. Power and vulnerability increase and decrease in direct proportion to each other, rather than in the inverse proportion we are likely to expect: they spread into everything else we are, too, so that the midpoint we look up to in a model can serve as center for intellectual and spiritual, along with mechanical, physical, and emotional self.

Quite simply, it is looking up to a person, in every sense, that shows that person’s monumental character. Looking down on people is likely to persuade them to close up, protecting themselves against us. I have found, much to my surprise, that a good number of people who model use this “protection” as their focus in modeling – seeming to be there, but not being there at all. We who are trying to draw them “haven’t a clue” who and what they really are. This approach dries people out very fast, unfortunately.

Many artists feel that eye-to-midpoint is the most appropriate artistic approach for them: looking up at what is above the genitals, looking down on the genitals and what is below them: particularly when the subject of the work of art being produced is a woman. There is a special richness for art, however, and also for viewers, in reclaiming a child’s perspective, opening up to the model as a monumental presence, looking up all the way. Models who use “presence” rather than absence as how to be with other people find themselves to be seen as larger than life, and to keep growing with the people who grow with them.

A dear friend of mine, Meredith Borden, wrote an “Appreciation” of her own first modeling experiences, which I find valuable to quote, with her permission, at this point. “Posing in the nude was a big leap for me in a certain way but it was (and is) something I am open to and ready for. And being my first experience as such, it was certainly wonderful.

I can see (and feel!) some new things in regard to nakedness and beauty and self and performing and sharing. Something that is hard to articulate. Posing seemed like an event of utmost sacredness and certainly a performance of sorts. But somehow it went beyond all that in the sense that I came back to myself in a way that I had not foreseen. It was kind of scary in a way but not in a bad way. But I certainly felt vulnerable in a way that I have also felt at other intense moments in my life.

The second sitting, as you say, was different from the first. I guess I was more myself and therefore more expressive and able to give more. And I certainly could feel the smile in my body. It was a spiritual connection I felt. I can best describe it as contentment.”