Joshua McPherson, Figure Painting, 2008
The Other Side of the Image: the Model
Written by JoZoe Bray
As featured on the Florence Academy of Art, News Webpage, (May 2009)
Figurative artists are the first to admit that much of the success of their work depends on the model. This does not just mean that the model must have interesting features and be able to keep a pose. More importantly, there must also be a good working relationship between the model and the artist.
The concept of the artist's model often conjures up romantic images of a naked woman posing for a male artist in a 19th century Parisian atelier steaming with erotic tension. This may have been the case for some. But it is likely to have been only a small part of reality for most models even in those days, and it is far from the truth for the models working today at The Florence Academy of Art (FAA).
All of these models have made a strong contribution to the training of FAA students, as the subjects of their drawing, painting and sculpture studies. Some have also contributed to the art of teachers at the school, their likenesses captured in paintings and sculptures and transported to exhibitions and publications. Such is the case of Hans, a German sexagenarian with striking long white hair and beard who has lived on the streets of Florence for more than a decade and who has been immortalised by the brushstrokes of, among others, Daniel Graves, Maureen Hyde and Rupert Alexander. Such is also the case for Glen Haybittle, an English writer who over the years has made Florence his home and who features in another famous portrait by Daniel, 'The poet'. Yet another striking image is that of Leniz Santana, in a frank and beautiful nude painting by Simona Dolci entitled 'Gender'.
Who are these models? And what does the experience of modelling mean for them, other than being a mere job? Over the years, the FAA has seen the passage of a seemingly endless stream of models of many nationalities and from many walks of life. Each has his or her own story to tell, many of them based on years of experience.
Gianni Rocchetta is a Tuscan in his early 40s who has been working practically full-time with the FAA for nearly 8 years to supplement what he earns from his other profession as translator (he was also a model in New York). "Modelling is really tough work, it's so physical," he says. "But all the same, it's a job I enjoy." This, he explains, reflects his passion for singing - in March he was invited to perform solo on Italian television. "As a classically trained singer and dancer, I empathise with the artistic devotion of students at the FAA," he says. "Posing is about performance: performers are used to exhibiting themselves, to establishing a dialogue with the public; the public receives the energy from the performer and returns it. I think this exchange is something fundamental for the students and artists in general."
Posing is certainly an art in its own right. The best models have presence and give their full attention to the artist, thereby creating a connection. Elisa Ramires, a woman in her early 30s who came from the southernmost tip of Italy to study history of art at the University of Florence and who has been modelling with the FAA since 2003, learnt this the hard way. Arriving late for her pose one hot summer's afternoon, flustered and exhausted after a tough morning at university, she took up her pose on the model stand and promptly fainted, crashing to the floor. Looking back on the incident now with amusement, Elisa acknowledges that she had not realised until then how serious and demanding modelling is. "It's certainly not about simply standing there and looking nice for a bit."
Elisa also models at the Accademia delle Belle Arte of Florence, which she says is a totally different experience: few people there are interested in working from life, and when they do, they only pay partial attention to what they have in front of them. As a result, the modelling job is far less demanding. Yet Elisa prefers the FAA, where she feels her performance is more valued. "It is also more rewarding," she says, "in terms of the quality of the students' work."
Pier Paolo Mascaretti, another Tuscan now in his 30s, has modelled for various art schools since 1996. He agrees that posing for a realist school like the FAA is more taxing than posing elsewhere. The poses at the FAA are longer and a greater degree of precision is called for. Paradoxically, the pay is considerably less than in other schools. Nonetheless, in cases where Pier Paolo has had a good relationship with the artist or teacher there have been times that he has accepted to pose for little money, happy to simply take part in a special artistic project. "It's a job where we put our whole ego into play," he says.
Indeed, all the models can feel proud of playing an important role in the creation of a work, given how much of themselves they put into it. Elisa says she often has to explain to students at the Accademia delle Belle Arte how realist painting is different from taking a photograph. While a photo is the image of an instant, a realist painting is the product of many sessions and many states of mind. "Sometimes you are sad, other times happy," she says. But every day, the model and the artist are working together to produce something.
Sometimes models are also painters and sculptors, or become so. A famous historical example is the French nineteenth century figure Suzanne Valadon, the mother of the equally famous artist Maurice Utrillo, who worked as a model and, thus introduced into the art community, rapidly became a gifted painter in her own right. At the FAA, many students work as models to earn extra cash and pay for their studies. Tim McGuire, an American student in the advanced painting programme of the FAA, was the subject of a key painting by Daniel Graves called 'The Explorer'. Tim recalls that posing for Daniel was an opportunity not only to earn money but also to get to know Daniel better. As they worked together, they talked about common interests and personal things. It was after Tim recounted to Daniel his love of travelling long distances by bike or on foot and some of his adventures that Daniel got the idea for the title to his portrait.
Figurative painters or sculptors who have themselves worked as models are often able to empathise more deeply with their subjects. From my own experience of modelling for other artists, I know how physically and mentally exigent the work can be. The experience has taught me to deeply appreciate every second that the model is up there on the podium holding the pose for me. Even a pose that is not particularly complex or contorted is difficult when it has to be held for 25 minutes without a break. Sessions at the FAA commonly last three hours - with a five minutes break every 25 minutes - and students will work on the same pose for at least four weeks. The model needs not only to physically settle into the pose but to find the mental focus to keep it alive.
Leniz Santana, a Columbian in her early 40s who posed at the FAA during a three-year stay in Florence, recalls how challenging it was. "I had never modelled for such long hours in the same pose, and it absolutely exhausted me. It required that I develop greater self-control. The intense period I spent posing at the school, sometimes 10 hours a day, led me to better understand the artistic endeavour and also the classical rigor of the FAA method." So much so that Leniz, who is herself a painter, is currently writing a book on the experience of the model and the role of the model in art-making.
Modelling as a profession is something that one rarely spontaneously thinks about. Most of us come to it via word of mouth, having heard about it from friends or acquaintances or having been directly invited to model by an artist. As an accessible job for which the only significant qualifications are patience and stamina, modelling is generally seen as an easy way to make ends meet. What is more, as Pier Paolo mentioned and others agree, it offers the pleasure of taking part in an artistic project.
At one level, there is the curiosity of seeing what realist art students can visually produce from your features, all of them trying to be objective and yet all coming up with something rather different. At another level, as Gianni frankly adds, there is also something rather narcissistic about it: the natural pleasure of being observed and represented. Finally, the 'thank you' uttered by FAA students at the end of each session may confirm the model's feeling that the effort was worth it.