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Pleasures of the flesh

A new television series encourages the nation to take up life classes. Our art critic Tim Adams does

I’m sitting in front of a large and naked woman named Lucy who is lying in a foetal position on the floor of a Victorian art gallery in north London. I have spent the past 40 minutes trying to capture both the exact curve of Lucy’s fleshy backside, in charcoal on the paper I’ve got propped on my knees, and, with a putty eraser, the way that the light is falling on her upper buttock. So engrossed have I become in this effort that I have long forgotten the reason I am here: to observe the atmosphere of a life class, and to get a sense of the curious relationship of model to amateur artist. Who wants to take notes, though, when you can draw?

In the previous day or two, I have been talking and reading about just this sense of intimacy, which comes through abstract observation of a stranger’s flesh. I have not spoken to Lucy, who is lying surrounded by about a dozen other concentrated voyeurs engaging with her from different angles, but in drawing her I feel not only a connection with her, but also a powerful sense of responsibility to portray this connection as closely as I can on the paper in front of me. It is quiet in the room, but this is more the quiet of a church than of a theatre; it’s not a spectacle, so much as a sense of communion. As I draw, I realise what a very long time it is since I have drawn anything at all, apart from sketches for my children, though the act feels so natural, and so consuming, that I can hardly believe I don’t do it as a daily ritual.

This is exactly the ritual that the nation will be encouraged to pursue in the coming month, when Channel 4 and the art commissioning organisation Artangel will stage a series of life classes on television for the first time. Each one will be led by a different artist from an impressive list including Maggi Hambling, John Berger and Gary Hume, and each will encourage the viewer to look for a long half-hour at a naked human body and try to capture what he or she sees. It will be the biggest life class in history.

The programmes started out as the baby of Alan Kane, a conceptual artist perhaps best known for creating a steam-powered Apple Mac. He got the idea for them, he explained to me a couple of days before I was confronted with the naked form of Lucy, from watching another television series, The Power of Art.

“When I thought about the thesis behind that programme,” Kane said, “I realised the power of art comes not from the 200-odd paintings that we are all supposed to admire, but from the sort of universal condition of creative energy that I think art is really about, the thousands of people who work at it every day. I got to thinking about life classes: though there is something slightly comic about the idea, there is also a serious point, that art does not belong to ‘them’ – to the galleries and the critics – it belongs to all of us.”

The more Kane researched, the more he could see that the idea might catch a mood. Even Da­mien Hirst had begun drawing. A “doodle bar” had opened in south London which encouraged patrons to experiment with paints as they sipped their pints. Kane visited life classes across the country, from one in which students did exercises lasting the length of seven-inch records, to a squat in east London whose inhabitants habitually lounged around drawing each other, to more conventional classes such as the one I attended under the supportive gaze of Judy Purbeck, a presenter of the series.

Regardless of the venue, Kane remarks, he was struck by how the act of drawing another human body always attracted the same cheerful, contemplative engagement – “an atmosphere that led you to think as much about life, as about art”. It was the mood that he remembered from his own days drawing from life at Canterbury College of Art 20 years earlier. Ironically, it was, he says now, the confidence that he could capture something of the human figure on a piece of paper that led him to have a notion of himself as a conceptual artist.

Making the programmes has been another education. “The day I spent watching John Berger draw and talk about drawing was one of the best days of my life,” he comments.

Before I attended my class I was able to watch a rough cut of the film of Berger’s lesson. Now 82, Berger brings to it all the wisdom of his years of looking. He talks of life drawing as “a strange coming together of the intimate and the human, that is to say, all of us”; and all the while his pencil works away at a drawing of his friend the Spanish dancer/choreographer María Muñoz.

It is a spellbinding collaboration, Berger punctuating his ways of seeing the impossible poses that the dancer adopts with snatches of his own poetry: “You say the leg supports the body/but have you never seen the seed/within the ankle, whence the body grows . . .”

Berger suggests that at the beginning, trying to draw, you have to “let yourself go into your confusion”. This is a tactic I try when confronted with Lucy’s backside – and it works to a degree; not sure where to begin, I begin everywhere at once and wait for some form to emerge. Berger seems exactly right when he observes of this process: “Often when you look at a pose it is almost like a word written with its five or seven letters. You notice the angle of the hip, the poise of the head and so on, but in fact all the letters of the alphabet are there at the same time.”

One of the things that I wonder about as I am drawing is the question of whether some people make better models than others. Or are all bodies equally interesting when you start to look? Ber­ger has an answer for this, too. “I think when you are drawing people the contribution of the so-called model, the so-called sitter, is very active,” he suggests. “It’s a kind of radiation, because really drawing is about being open, receptive. What the model can do is to send you a message to encourage that receptivity. It is absolute balls to say it is a creative process. It is as much about you as it is about them.”

This collaboration quickly comes to feel like a kind of shared secret. Alan Kane suggested to me that drawing a body is just as conceptual as any other kind of art – it’s a question of putting one line next to another. It is only when I sit down to do it that I see the force of the idea. Again, Berger says it well: “At a certain moment of looking you forget about naming the parts of the body. You are concerned with what might be called a ‘body­scape’ . . . Maybe bodies have their weather, too.”

When Maggi Hambling was invited to appear on the show, she argued at first that she would like to be featured drawing the sea near her home on the Suffolk coast, which she does every morning. “I said it is exactly the same thing,” she tells me, “but they said that wouldn’t do, so I was persuaded to draw a body like everyone else.”

When Hambling first went to art school, she recalls, she did a lot of life drawing, but she always refused to go to anatomy, thinking it “might be rather a dead experience”. The essence of it, she believes, “is to capture that sense of a human being breathing, as if they might be about to get up from the chair”. Many of Hambling’s drawings, particularly those of her friends the actress Amanda Barrie and the late George Melly, have exactly that quality. It is the alchemy that all great drawings have – the gift of life, all the more poignant when the subject has since died. (It is also, of course, the spark that is the hardest to capture – from time to time as I labour with my charcoal and eraser, I think I feel a stirring of Lucy in my drawings, but mostly, on the page, she stays stubbornly inert.)

Some of this has to do with simple geometries: you cannot easily trick the eye about the proportions of the human body; we know instinctively how an ankle bends and a shoulder curves. Mistakes in this respect can happen even to the best. “I was painting a male nude once,” Hambling says, “and spent maybe two hours on his knee, then I realised I had got it in the wrong place. In a sense you have to read the whole body all of the time, you have to be thinking about the big toe at the same time as you are concentrating on a nipple.” Which, naturally, is easier said than done.

The best way to learn to draw, she says, is to go and look at drawings by great artists, which the National Gallery, for instance, usually keeps in storage. “It is a special kind of thrill to actually touch the paper on which Van Gogh has made a drawing,” she says. “Drawing is always the most intimate thing an artist does, the touch of charcoal or ink on the paper. And, in a way, it is also the most straightforward.”

Sitting trying to inject some life into the clumsy buttocks on my page, I can feel the force of the first half of that statement, but cannot for the life of me agree with the latter.

“Life Class: Today’s Nude” is on Channel 4 from 6-10 July at 12.30pm
Artangel, 31 Eyre Street Hill, London EC1 (www.artangel.org.uk)

This article first appeared in the 29 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Escape