Last Thursday I had the pleasure of being one of the moderators of the online conference Life Drawing, Sexuality & the Body: a Conversation with Kate Cowcher, Marika Knowles, and Neil Macdonald. Overlooking my self-declared bias, I can assure you the event was one of the most successful online talks I have attended. Far from being alienating or intimidating (as most Zoom events are) there was a great mix of engagement, information, and critical conversation. The event was a collaboration between The Art History Society and The Art Society as part of SHAG Week, a wonderful yearly initiative for sexual health awareness and guidance, possible thanks to the joint efforts of Sexpression St. Andrews and the Director of Wellbeing’s team. The talk highlighted the story of the nude in art, the development of life drawing, and other issues related to the representation of the body in art.
Members of both societies were joined by three professors from the Art History Department of our university: Dr Kate Cowcher, an expert in African Modernism and Postcolonial theory, Dr Marika Knowles, a specialist in French art and the depiction of the nude in post-Renaissance paintings, and finally Dr Neil Macdonald, whose research focuses on Queer Theory and AIDS/HIV art. The professors were joined by two former models for The Art Society signature weekly life drawing classes, Sam and Emily. All of the speakers contributed beautifully to a powerful and meaningful reflection over the perception of the body and its projection in outer representations. Since not all the attendees had a background in Art History, Eleanor Varley, Treasurer of The Art History Society, briefly introduced the history of artistic representations of the nude. A concise and clear presentation, which highlighted the various stages of representation of the body, from primitive cave paintings and statuettes to Renaissance ideal nudes, up to postmodern happenings. She masterfully shrank a complete history of the nude into a few slides, emphasising the changing meaning, from a focus on fertility to reclaiming possession of one own’s body.
After this introduction, I proceeded to interview the professors, as Exhibition Coordinator for the Art Society. Given my (stereotypical) Italian accent, their incredibly relaxed attitude, and the presence of Dr Knowles’ beautiful red cat, made it feel more like an informal gathering than an academic lecture. Nonetheless, all the contributions were very meaningful and perfectly highlighted the past and current issues of nude representation in art. Dr Cowcher, Dr Macdonald, and D. Knowles all reiterated the importance of culture specificity when analysing a work of art, emphasising the various spectrums of interpretation according to artistic ages, geographical locations, and social contexts. Dr Knowles emphasised the difference between a naked body and a nude one, how “being naked” is exposing oneself, while nudity is an artistic construct. Dr Cowcher powerfully contributed with examples of Western gendered perception of African art, while Dr Macdonald emphasised the politicised perceptions of decadent bodies affected by AIDS. Valuable contributions, which were lightened up by funny interludes like the discussion of their favourite works of art depicting a nude (I suggest you all check out Bazille’s Fisherman with a Net).
The final section of the talk was an interview with past life drawing models moderated by The Art Society life drawing coordinator, Avery Gory. With gracefulness and much sensitivity, Avery guided a heart-warming conversation on personal perception of the body and psychological empowerment. Listening to Sam and Emily’s experiences I could not help by smiling widely, smiling for the pride in their eyes. Sam being candid about his body dysmorphia and Emily deconstructing the myth of a sexualised naked body was just something everybody should listen to. They were touching but not cheesy, honest, and strong, fostering personal reflection and a reconsideration of ones own limits and fears.
Overall, the event was deep and touching, funny and informal. From an art history student perspective, seeing my professors outside the class environment (I wish could be a real class!) make them feel more human. We talked, we shared thoughts, I could feel their opinions and value them even more. The life drawing experiences were just the final touch, which made the event complete and self-contained. I would finally like to thank both the presidents of The Art History Society, Laine Capshaw, and my president, Ella Matza for conceiving such a stimulating talk which made us feel closer despite the uncertainty of these times.