Model and Artist in one body
© 2021 The Charleston Trust, Dominic Blake and Aurélie Debaene
Nina Hamnett’s work transcends the traditional boundaries between model and artist. Located
on both sides of the easel, Hamnett raises existential questions about the role of the model.
Previously detached from the creative process as ‘mercenary drawing instruments’ inhabiting
choreographed contrapposto poses at the École des Beaux-Arts, or as muses providing
inspiration but not engaging in the act of creation, modelling can itself become an artistic
practice given particular motivations and contexts: Model and Artist in one body.
Traditional Western academic definitions of Fine Art are inextricably linked with the
emergence of the Academies in Florence and Rome in the 16th Century, and later in Paris and
London. These locate the model within hierarchical power structures as passive conduits for
the artist (someone who draws, paints or sculpts) to realise their vision. Poses were dictated by
the artist or tutor to conform to exacting scholarly or aesthetic requirements. Within this
framework of direction, the model supports the artist’s creative endeavours by providing a
living reference through their body’s form; proportion, inner tension, texture and the interplay
of light and shadows are revealed, analysed and interpreted.
Although the act of posing occupies a special place in the making of art, models have not
historically been considered to possess high degrees of creative autonomy or agency in their
own right. Within contexts in which models improvise their poses, however, modelling can
become a physical mode of artistic practice within which the model uses their body as their
medium of expression to draw in space: a conscious artistic act.
We may think of a pose as a particular bodily configuration that a model maintains with the
aim of being registered. The act of posing itself constitutes a dynamic, performative event. Not
frozen in stillness, the model actively holds a physical form and incorporates the gaze. This
gaze exists in multiple layers; initially in those immediately present to register the pose,
lingering in spectators’ memories, as well the later gaze that views the represented pose in
various art media.
Modelling therefore harbours its own peculiar hybrid nature. The model is simultaneously a
subject (a person who poses) and an object. They instrumentalise their body to physically
render themselves a form to be looked at: an ephemeral work of art existing only as long as the
model is able to maintain the form.
This shifting emphasis redresses the hierarchical power structure in such a way that the model
becomes an active participant and contributor to the creation of art through their practice,
travelling on symbiotic journeys with the artists or students they collaborate with. Modelling
ceases to be a form of anatomical data entry, transforming into a medium that channels the
model’s direct emotional responses to the environments in which they are located, internal
dialogues and their bodies themselves.
The dual position Hamnett occupied within her practice as both artist and model further
deepens the existing tension between being an object and subject. The process of looking
changes by combining the expertise of being a living art reference with the scrutiny and
creative experimenting of an artist’s gaze. One might consider it a kind of self-portraiture; the
act of posing as a self-reflexive body practice that uses the artist as an art-object, the focus of
the piece, while their body as a medium both constitutes and functions as the material of the
Hamnett voices such interest in the poses she creates in her autobiography Laughing Torso,
“One morning I was standing in the middle of my room with no clothes on, assuming a variety
of poses and looking at myself in two mirrors, so that I could see the effect all round.” (1932:
320) Like all of us, she is and has a body — she both inhabits her body and operates it through
an integrated bodily experience and knowledge.
The complementary role of artist-model cultivates a great capacity for creative insight and
innovation, precisely because these modes of expertise and looking inform each other. As the
boundaries blur between artist and model, so do those in the artistic process; it no longer
maintains a linear progression of creation that can only result in an artwork for viewers to
enjoy at a later stage. Instead, the act of creation itself becomes an artistic event and basis for
aesthetic experience; a status not solely reserved for any artwork resulting from the event.
Having acquired creative autonomy, the model could deliberately locate their practice beyond
the Life Room or studio environment within contexts in which they are viewed not as
mercenary drawing instruments, but unambiguously as works of art or ‘living sculptures’
(Gilbert and George). Modelling then becomes a form of Performance Art; the practice
remaining unchanged but new contexts revealing the artistry behind the pose.
An updated understanding of the model emerges without existential imperative to be
perpetually bound to the Fine Art student or artist for validation. The model as artist controls
the form their work will take, the context of their practice, and even whether it will be viewed
by external observers or not. Context is truly critical; as a physical mode of artistic practice
modelling is performative by nature. This performative dimension does not dictate that the
model is required to present their work live, however; by employing photography and social
media, they can curate online experiences that potentially reach a mass audience. In this way,
they are able to alter both the inspiration and impetus for creation, as well as the audience’s
interaction with the work.
By entering in a creative dialogue with other artists or spectators, the model’s work evolves in
direct response to these interactions. Were a model to embed their practice within a gallery
environment rather than the studio, their work could be understood more intuitively as an art
form, embodying a status akin to readily accepted painting or sculpture.