It was an unexpected and entertaining end to a Thursday afternoon with my first years (12 year olds). I’d asked one of them to give a one minute presentation on Matisse’s painting The Dance. As soon as I put the painting on the screen at the front of the class I could feel a twitchy unrest spreading round the class, particularly amongst the boys. The reason was the nudity of Matisse’s five figures dancing in a ring.
You can’t teach art and support the practical work with a bit of art history without occasionally showing an unclothed body, I’ve done it often enough, normally with nothing more than an odd snigger. I’m still not sure what caused this particular class to find it all, well, so exciting! Not being one to shy away from a discussion I decided to try and contextualize the place of the nude in the history of art. The more I explained, the more interested they were becoming. It was kind of a mixture of twelve year old fascination mixed with a kind of perplexed disbelief.
Then finally came the inevitable question, “Sir, have you ever painted a lady with no clothes on?”
I wondered for a moment whether to carefully move the attention onto other things, but decided instead to explain that in art schools students are often given the chance to draw from the model, and that I too had done that in the past. In fact when I had first started I had produced one painting that had taken six weeks and the model, Jenny, had sat in the same pose every day. At this point you could almost see the minds of the class ticking over as they worked out some of the practicalities for themselves. A whole series of questions followed.
“How many hours a day did she sit?”
“How did she know she was sitting in the right way?”
“Did she take breaks?”
“Wasn’t it cold for her?”
“Did she get paid for just sitting there doing nothing?”
“Isn’t it a bit of a funny thing to do?”
“Did she wear shoes?”
But perhaps the funniest part of the discussion was as the pupils pictured the model’s breaks,
“Did you talk to the model during the breaks?”
“Did you get to know her a bit?”
“Wasn’t it a bit funny talking…..er……to someone…..er….with no clothes on?”
….er no, she put her clothes on then I replied. You could almost see all the little pictures being drawn in their minds!
Like I said, it was a funny and quite entertaining way to end the day. There was an atmosphere of excited disbelief running around the class….especially amongst the boys. Only time will tell if it will increase the number who apply to go to art school in five years time!