I need to get something off my chest. I often hear people speak about models in a slightly condescending manner: just pretty faces, bimbos that don’t need to do anything but strike a pose. Well, no. It’s a trade. And a tough trade at that. Artists’ models who, often stark naked in a freezing studio, stand for hours in weird contortions – photographic models who, also in the cold, have to look summery happy in a teeny bikini, ogled by the local village idiots. It is no mean feat. They are expected to understand everything: the instructions of the photographer, the stylist, the editor – of everyone shouting at them during the shoot. An experienced model knows about light, about focal points, about lenses, what his or her best angles and poses are.
Unfortunately it isn’t only outsiders who look down their noses at models, some painters and photographers do it too. They should be ashamed of themselves and remember they’d be pretty damn lost without the input of those boys and girls.
So yes, high time to put The Model in the spotlight here.
Victorine Meurent, the famous model of Edouard Manet. She herself was a painter, too. The consensus is that she was a prostitute, however that isn’t certain at all. (I myself assumed so too, in my comment about Olympia in ‘Women on Beds’. My sincerest apologies, ms. Meurent!).
Elisabeth Siddal. Dante Gabriel Rossetti fell in love with her, painted her, married her. Her health was frail and she died very young. Rossetti had just finished a collection of poems, and in his despair, he placed the manuscript under her head in the coffin. After a couple of years he started to regret that, and his friends volunteered to literally dig up the poems. To ease his feelings, they told him that Lizzie still looked just as she had done when she was alive, only her hair had grown so much that it filled the entire coffin. Would that have made him feel any better?
Jane Burden Morris. The wife of designer William Morris. Dante Gabriel Rossetti fell in love with her, painted her, had an affair with her. But no, he didn’t marry her and he didn’t have her exhumed either.
Dorothy Dene (stage name of Ada Alice Pullan). Muse – and lover? – of Frederic Lord Leighton. Supposedly the two of them were the inspiration for Pygmalion (and thus for My Fair Lady), him being an upper-class London gentleman and she being a poor girl with acting ambitions. The fact that they both knew George Bernard Shaw, and that Leighton paid for all her elocution lessons, prompted this story. When Leighton’s Kensington mansion (now a very lovely museum) was being restored, a separate entrance was discovered, for use solely by the models. So whose reputation was this supposed to protect? In any case, it is fair to say Dene was Leightons favorite model, featuring in this, his most famous painting: Flaming June. Her legs look outrageously elongated (making her fit seamlessly in the post about weird body parts) but apparently she really was extremely long-limbed. There’s a fun story about this painting: it is said that a young Andrew Lloyd Webber saw it in a shop for – brace yourself – £50. He asked his aunt to lend him the money, but she refused on the ground that “she wouldn’t have Victorian junk in the house”. So a Puerto Rican museum scooped it up. And in the end Lloyd Webber did alright, too.
Leighton and Dene again, because it is such a striking example of the impossible poses a model has to wriggle herself into. I wonder – on what, or who, could he have based the dragon?
Evelyn Nesbit. The first real, paid, photographic model. Also the woman at the center of all sorts of scandals and crimes, most notably the cold-blooded and very public murder of her ex-lover by her husband. Honestly, what an era the turn of the century was – crimes passionels, substance abuse, addiction, court cases . . . let’s just say Nesbit was a true child of her time. She also was one of the original Gibson Girls: portraits, drawn by New Yorker Charles Gibson, of beautiful, self-assured, sexy girls who became the archetypical faces of the 1890’s and 1900’s.
Verushka. Strikingly tall and beautiful Countess Vera von Lehndorff-Steinort – another amazing life story. Daughter of a Prussian nobleman who was executed by the Nazi’s because of his involvement in a famous, but foiled, plot to assassinate Hitler (July 20th, 1944). The events left his widow and their four daughters homeless and displaced. Veruschka was discovered by a modelling scout when she was in art school in Florence. She is in her eighties now, an accomplished visual artist. I absolutely adore her. I might do a separate post on her – in fact, I think I’ll do a ‘Models Part II’ in the not-too-distant future. One of the things I admire in Veruschka, is her gutsy, curious approach to her work. She was pretty much the inventor of body paint, something she used frequently in her own artwork too.
Dorothy Virginia Margaret Juba, known professionally as Dovima, wasn’t afraid to model with big animals either: here she is, shot by Richard Avedon in 1955, one of the most famous fashion photos of all time. This picture really shows what modelling is all about: sell the dress, sell yourself, sell the photographer’s resourcefulness, and making it all look perfectly normal. Life wasn’t very kind to Dovima: although she is considered to be the first supermodel, she made very little money. She ended up working as a waitress in a pizza joint till her death, at just 62.
Same session, same designer: Dior. I actually like this image better, with those repeated ornamental trunks and arms. But there aren’t very many ‘landscape’ fashion photos, and obviously Avedon had his reasons to crop this. Who knows? The negative of this one has disappeared. For ever, it seems.
Saskia van Uylenburgh, Kiki de Montparnasse, Jean Shrimpton, Twiggy, Beverly Johnson, Christy Turlington, Alek Wek. Part two is definitely on its way. Although I’m not entirely sure yet when. Because first I need to tell you, asap, about my upcoming exhibition.
So – Watch This Space!