“What spirit is so empty and blind, that it cannot recognize the fact that the foot is more noble than the shoe, and skin more beautiful than the garment with which it is clothed?” – Michelangelo
It’s pretty normal to look in the mirror and not completely like what you see, right? We all have moments of wishing something were a little thinner, rounder, firmer … It can take years to love the body you’re in, and unfortunately, some never do. Weird as it sounds, I’ve always thought of myself as a mind within a misshapen meat vessel. It was not until I started art modeling that I saw the beauty in my nudity.
Around three months after my arrival in Japan, I was approached by Naomi Moriyama, the organizer of the Meetup group Tokyo Artists League of Life Drawing (TAL). She was looking for new models to pose and I was fascinated by this unique opportunity.
I wasn’t without my reservations. I tended to feel awkward in hot springs and have often been deemed a fidgeter. But for Naomi that didn’t matter. Her goal was to use a wide variety of types of models including those with different personalities, genders, ages, ethnicities and occupations.
However, this wasn’t always easy. I learned from her that Tokyo’s fine art scene is very different to the one in London where she had previously organized sessions. In London, the ratio for men-to-women models is around 50-50; in Tokyo, the demand for female models far outweighs that of males.
Why the difference? Japanese artists apparently prefer the soft lines of a feminine physique. The bulk of a muscled man isn’t often found in traditional or contemporary Japanese art. Naomi recalled some TAL participants having never drawn a man before. Breaking free from this close-minded tradition, she continues to hire both foreigners and Japanese people from diverse backgrounds.
In the end, it was the necessity of this role that truly motivated me to try it out. As an amateur artist myself, I know that life drawing is crucial to teaching the proper anatomical structure of the body. There is a need for professional models who are willing to bare themselves in the name of art. Although the view that nudity is art – and not eroticism – has been both embraced and shunned, it’s a simple fact that for thousands of years humans have been drawing the naked form. We look and we copy.
It’s easy to imagine our ancestors posing for cave paintings or ancient Romans sketching each other in public baths. The greats have depicted everything from mighty gods to raucous revellers, all without clothes. In pre-modern Japan, there was no great shyness when it came to nudity. It was a common occurrence for townsfolk to bathe in communal hot springs, unsegregated by gender. So when it came to drawing the human figure, there was no shortage of inspiration or anatomical knowledge. Fast forward to modern Japan and we see a more reserved society lacking in these opportunities, while the need for drawing nude figures has not diminished.
So what was it like to be butt naked in a room full of people staring at my bits and pieces? To many, this no doubt sounds like a worst nightmare and I’d be lying if I said I was a natural. My friends all seemed perplexed by the idea and took great pains to tell me I was very brave; that they could never do such a thing.
Eventually, though, I began to ignore the many pairs of eyes, stopped trying to read their private thoughts, and started focusing on emulating a statue, which in truth was the hardest part – letting my mind wander into a meditative state while trying to prevent muscles from seizing up was easier said than done.
By the end of the two-hour session, with a few breaks in-between, I was treated to a bevy of fantastic works of art with myself as the star.