PRINT April 1986


the return of an endangered species—the artist's model.

IN 1907, IN THE New York Herald, a woman named Charlotte Eaton wrote, “I was hopelessly lonely and forlorn—yea, worse. I was hungry, unable to get anything to do because of inexperience, and at the end of my tether. So one day—it came to me like a flash! An artists' model! Why not? I knew myself in possession of a strong and shapely physique, and that gave me courage” Has a familiar ring, wouldn't you say? Probably just how Veruschka felt. Ditto those guys body-snatched by Bruce Weber, one by one, from lifeguard stands and water polo teams all across the country.

From the beginning, the model has needed courage. An object, he (or, more frequently in recent centuries, she) has been expected to hold a pose, follow simple directions, and keep quiet, never, under any circumstances, attempting to tell his (or her) story. From the beginning, too, the predicament of the model has been coincident with the predicament of the nude. It still is: the maillot the model wears on the cover of the Sports Illustrated bathing suit issue is as much a technicality (and a come-on) as the skintight breeches on Goya's other Maja. So, for that matter, is the Oscar de la Renta ball gown on the model in Vogue. The point is, you take your model, you make him or her strip, then either you make the model get dressed again—in something you've selected—or you don't. As the critic John Berger once observed, “The nude is condemned to never being naked. Nudity is a form of dress” And vice versa.

The thing a model isn't, of course, is an actor, in both senses of that word. An actor gets to tell a story, even if it isn't of his own devising, gets to ask (and to answer) questions that people take seriously, gets to be, or at least to play the role of, the subject. A model is meant to perfect somebody's idea of something, an actor to portray it. (As models are to the tradition of the nude, so actors are to the tradition of the portrait.) This probably explains why a lot of models want to become actors. Their only real alternative is to find a good artist, one who'll glom on to—and respect—their individuality Some are lucky: Victorine Meurent managed to get herself job after job with Edouard Manet, sometimes as matador, sometimes as odalisque. And who can imagine anyone but Magda Förstner (even if we never knew her name) as André Kertész's satiric dancer?

In general, though, the 20th century has not been very kind to the model. For every Pablo Picasso, who, however priapically he may have behaved toward his models, at least seems to have thought about them (and credited them with having thoughts of their own), there's been a Salvador Dali. As the story goes, Dali would flip through the “head sheets” of the New York modeling agencies, then have those agencies send the models he dug, one by one, up to his suite at the St. Regis—where there weren't a lot of paintbrushes. Meanwhile, Abstract Expressionism, Pop art, Minimalism, and Conceptualism were putting the artists' model out of business, give or take an Alex Katz, a Philip Pearlstein, a Balthus. And though fashion photography in a sense took up the slack, now models were less likely to “sit” for people than to be “shot” by them, with all that word's connotations nicely in place.

Recently, however, things have begun to look up for artists' models. Whispering in the unemployment line, exchanging furtive smiles on the street corner and sidelong glances in the models' bar, they speak (strictly forbidden on the job, of course) of the return of figuration, the triumph of realism, the fall from grace of color fields and cubes. The academy, they have heard, is thriving again. The “life” class is completely signed up.

Probably we should be happy for artists' models, the same way we'd be happy for Broadway actors (or shepherds) if theater (or sheep) came back. But we should also keep an eye on their progress. There's other work to be done besides standing still. The model may be essentially a blank form, filled in according to esthetic, social,and personal projections that the artist casts on the human body. Yet that complex of projections reveals ourselves to ourselves. As the tint of invisible ink emerges under heat, or, better, as litmus paper dipped in solution blushes to tell its story, the model's blankness gives way to colors of its own—the colors of our time. What kinds of figures will be chosen to be models, and how will those figures be treated? Will we finally allow our nudes to be naked, our objects—if not to become full-fledged subjects—at least to object to being subjected?

William Wilson is a New York writer and editor. He writes a column on fashion for Artforum.