My drawing class began a new project today; recreating a work by an impressionist artist.
I don’t usually go for reproducing work. The thought and care that went into creating that piece, the composition, the color choices, the entire idea, everything is already there. So what I’m creating isn’t meaningful or innovative, it’s just a copy. However, I understand that some pieces aren’t about the finished product, they’re about the learning experience, and as a first year I’d like to improve my technique as much as possible.
I arrived at class with the three images I was considering working from. A Degas:
Interestingly, some people had pieces that were obviously not by impressionist artists. In fact, two separate people had been fooled by Lucian Freud’s work, one student only bringing in three Freud paintings.
Our teacher surveyed the wall, “Jeremy*,” he said with a sigh, “could you tell me why you chose those images?”
Jeremy still didn’t realize his mistake, and began to talk about this painting:
“Well,” he said, “I liked this piece because it’s so grotesque”.
At this point the majority of the room laughed.
“It’s just that, look at this woman, and imagine doing that gesture. And as you keep working it’s just becoming grosser and grosser as you draw and paint more. She’s huge and there’s all of these flaps of flesh. That’s why I picked it”.
Everyone in the room is smiling. Some people nod their heads in agreement.
“That’s great Jeremy, but this piece isn’t impressionist. It’s by Lucian Freud…” My teacher explained Jeremy’s mistake, but not the mistake that I’d like to talk about.
More after the jump!
Yes, Freud’s painting is grotesque. No, it’s not because this woman is obese. Freud’s paintings, no matter what the weight of the subject, are grotesque. They make you squirm, with their artificial lighting and their sickly toned skin. The loose strokes make it look like their skin is crawling, and it makes your own skin crawl as well.
Mockery of those who are overweight is common nowadays. Jokes about obesity are pretty much accepted by everyone as normal (Too many yo mama jokes to count). But why? Around 60% of American adults are obese. Yet despite all this, there’s this attitude that if you’re overweight, you’re lazy. And gross. And probably unintelligent as well.
But this is crazy! How are we drawing all of this negative information from someone’s body type? Genetics play a huge role in weight, and sure, there may be people out there who eat too much and don’t exercise enough, leading to obesity, but there are also those who eat due to emotional disorders. There are those who eat little, exercise a lot, yet never lose weight. There’s also the fact that what some consider overweight can actually be healthier than some acceptable skinnier weights. I don’t want to bash skinny women, I just think that the idealization of models’ weights can go too far.We can’t judge everyone based on our own generalizations. It’s unfair.
The idea that the only attractive bodies are those of thin, young, (and looking at the examples I found, white) women is frequently seen in the media and in the world of art.
Here are only a few recent examples I found, from paintings to sculptures to illustrations and more…
I don’t dislike these artist’s work. There are things that I love about them. I myself fall prey to mainly depicting thin women in my work, partially because I am thin and draw my own body type frequently, and most likely partially because I’m surrounded by images of thin women every day. And I don’t think that artists are constantly saying, “Hey, we should only depict skinny women. That’ll mess up everyone’s self esteem real good!” But I do think our overwhelming depiction of skinny=good and pure while fat=bad and evil is ruining a lot of self-images and leading otherwise thoughtful and caring groups of students to make sizeist remarks in the classroom.
There’s a lot more to cover in terms of body depictions in art and in the media. There are gender aspects that make the norm of weight for women much less realistic than the norm of weight for men. There are artists who have very positive depictions of weight and positive messages of accepting one’s body. There are specific artists (Like Reubens, Jenny Saville, Will Cotton etc) that I would like to talk about in much more detail.
But I have class in the morning. And a pile of homework. If only that art school thing wasn’t always getting in the way of learning about art!
So expect more later. And if anyone has thoughts on body types and body images in the art world, let’s hear them! I’d love to learn more ideas and points of view on the subject.
*not his actual name.