Jenny Danes

In the Artist’s Gaze – the Poetics of Life Modelling

(Alternative Selves numbers 3 and 14!)

Thinking about alternative selves – the spooky, uncanny ways our reflections and imitations pop up in the world – brings me to think about the artist’s gaze. What is it that’s being captured when you’re painted or drawn? What does it mean to be observed, dissected into shapes, immortalised onto canvas? Is it more unsettling when it’s good art, recognisably you, or when it’s all wrong?

I’ve been a portrait and life model for several months now, and am still thinking about these questions. It’s an odd experience to get used to: the end of the session, when the room is filled with scuffling chairs and chatter, you look round to see twenty different versions of your face and body looking back at you from easels. Or you step carefully over your own watercoloured body, laid out to dry on the floor.

It’s interesting to think about the uncanny, described by Freud as

‘nothing new or alien, but something which is familiar and old-established in the mind and which has become alienated’ [1]

Having your portrait painted surely fits into this; the ultimate familiar thing (your own face) becomes alienated and othered.

There is an enduring fascination in society with doppelgängers, and according to researcher Dr Manel Esteller, the likelihood of having one is only increasing due to population growth: “Now there are so many people in the world that the system is repeating itself,” Esteller said. It’s very possible, then, that a painting of you looks more like your doppelgänger than you. Looking at uncanny art after modelling, I like to think about what these almost-selves, these other-Jennys might be like. Maybe they have none of my neuroses or habits, or have a different accent when they speak. Maybe they live halfway across the world.

Furthering the peculiarity is the fact that the art will continue to exist after each class. My grandmother is an artist and used to regularly draw in cafes and restaurants: other customers would litter the pages of her sketchbooks. How many of us exist as paintings or drawings in strangers’ houses without us knowing? What will happen to these selves over the years? The longer we exist in the world, the more we are leaving versions of ourselves behind as strangers and acquaintances keep little bits of us: memories, drawings, photos.

Sue Vickerman has written excellent poetry about her experience of being a life model. The below is an extract from ‘The drawing instructor’s index finger’ in the pamphlet Kunst by Suki, published by Indigo Dreams Publishing:

See the arc of the neck, the negative space
in her arm’s crook, her weight
all on one foot, how her jaw nestles
into that left shoulder, these shadows
of ribs, the musculature, her bone structure

Vickerman’s use of definite articles and anatomical language here really emphasises the alienation: saying ‘that’ left shoulder rather than ‘her’ left shoulder reinforces the disconnect between the model’s actual self, and the physical object self as viewed by the teacher. The focus on absence (‘negative space’, ‘shadows’), seems to alienate this further.

I recently modelled for a sculpture class, sitting in one pose for a slightly gruelling six hours. I’ll finish with this poem about it, which tries to consider the ways we leave parts or versions of ourselves behind.

Sculpture Class

I’m onstage in the middle of the room,
perched on a stool covered with pink cloth.
I look down without moving my head
to watch my tiny selves come into being.

The thumbs of strangers shape my breasts.
My collarbones are scraped with a sharp tool,
my back smoothed with a sponge.
Someone squishes me with a fist to start over.

The room is too hot. Slowly, carefully, a man
pushes a stick through my head to help me sit up.
She keeps moving, someone mutters, and the teacher
laughs awkwardly. That morning I’d pinned

my hair back, and the style is recreated obediently
all round the room. In one sculpture I look pregnant.
A woman complains at the challenge my tilted
foot presents. Someone comes right up to the stage

for a closer look. Hours later, I get dressed,
and look at what I’m leaving behind: a small army
of clay selves assembled on a table, ready to come
alive at night. A damp patch in the shape of a vulva

on the pink cloth, like using potato stamps at preschool,
wet stars on an old sheet. I imagine the teacher
gathering the cloth as she packs away, how she’ll glance
down at the print of me, fold me into her arms.

Jenny Danes

About Jenny Danes

Jenny Danes (she/her) is a poet, writer and facilitator based in Norwich. Her work has appeared in magazines including Poetry Wales, The Rialto, Magma, Under the Radar, Butcher’s Dog and bath magg. In 2016 she won The Poetry Business’ New Poets Prize, and her debut pamphlet Gaps was published by smith|doorstop in 2017. 

[1] Sigmund Freud, ‘The “Uncanny”’ [1919], in The Complete Psychological Works, Vol. XVII (London: Hogarth Press 1955 & Edns.), pp.217-56, p. 241

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