From Life – drawing the human body has always been a challenge for artists. The Royal Academy presents a brief history of life-drawing, with examples of work by contemporary artists and also a ‘virtual’ body of work…

I’ve been grappling with life drawing for years – it is the most difficult thing. You’d think that we humans have a pretty good idea about the shape, form and proportion of the human body yet it’s a constant battle to overcome the brain’s perception of what is seen and find a way to translate what is seen in front of you to something drawn on paper, card, canvas or in sculpture.

It fascinates me that an interest in portraiture and life drawing started with the Renaissance artists who were inspired by sculpture from the classical world. Seriously, did nobody do any life drawing or portraiture in the intervening 1500 years?  Were these skills ‘lost’, can this be true.  I’m intrigued by the remarkable Fayum portraits (Mummy portraits), painted over 2000 years ago, which were clearly made from life as a real likeness of the subject and then buried with the mummy, placed over their face as a lasting memorial of that person’s appearance.  The Greeks and Romans really LOOKED at humans and made the most sensational art based on what they saw. Then, for some reason, artists stopped representing what was in front of them and started making art which represented what the people were, or how they lived, or how they would like to be represented.  Anyway,  thank goodness for life-drawing.  It’s the ultimate discipline for training the eye to really SEE what is there and make a bold attempt to capture it.  Life Drawing has been the bedrock of artistic training for centuries and so it should continue, I believe.

The new show at the Royal Academy takes us from the early life-drawing classes established with the RA Schools in 1768 up to the work of contemporary artists and into the new arena 3D virtual reality.  I enjoyed the paintings by Zoffany and (attributed) to Hogarth of eager students peering at plaster models.  Then there’s a mix of life drawings of Iggy Pop before examples of work by Antony Gormly, Chantal Joffe, Jonathan Yeo, Gillian Wearing, Jenny Saville and many more.

I was blown away by the virtual reality experience created by Yinka Shonibare RA in a separate space where, encased in a head set, you find yourself transported in front of and then walk THROUGH a neo-classical painting he has produced and beyond into a wonderful, paradise of classical idealism. I could quite happily have stayed in that virtual space for some time but it was probably a couple of minutes before I had to give it up and return to the grey light of Piccadilly on a December morning. Hey ho.

Above: Self-portrait with hand on hip by Chantal Joffe, Sculpture and painting, GThe Preserving Machine by Jonathan Yeo

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