The romance of the human body

One of the most impressive self-portrait artists I have discovered is Joan Semmel, whose very realistic and “unromantic” paintings of her own body as she ages are such a departure from the sleek female nudes we are typically exposed to. While some have called her work stark, as an aging woman  myself (aren’t we all aging?), I find her paintings bring a refreshingly honest perspective on the human body.

painting self-portrait nude woman Joan Semmel

In this image, I see vulnerability juxtaposed with immense courage. The pinks and yellows that form the skin tone, as well as the cushion and the background, seem to present an equal mix of softness and firmness; a good description of any human body. The veiny arms and hands, the not-always gentle curves,  the volume of the breasts as well as the fleshy form at the back of the thigh appear more lifelike and relatable than the wispy-limbed models preferred for fashion shoots.

Although her bareness can be surprising at first, I quickly felt that the woman in the painting projected a familiar figure.

To me, this woman half hidden by the camera and yet so very exposed, could well be my grandmother, my aunt, my next door neighbour. She could even represent me several years down the road. Above all, the woman I see is human in the purest of ways, and I admire her for bringing these images into the world.

Seeing an older body is almost a relief compared to the idealized perfection we are exposed to. I am grateful to you, Joan Semmel for daring to show the beauty of the female body in the forms your own body has taken over the years. Your artwork is soothing, like advice from an elder, giving us permission to be fully ourselves, as graceful or as “stark” some aspects of nudity, vulnerability and aging may appear.

To learn more about Joan Semmel’s self-portraits over 40 years, follow the link to this article for more info and more images.

A rough draft of myself

The art of self-portraiture is a brave endeavour. Finding balance between making it look genuine without falling into complacency or self-denigration is not an easy task.

Publishing a work of art and making it visible to others’ eyes is always a courageous act, but even more so when it is a self-portrait. And when a self-portrait is nude, it can feel like the equivalent of undressing in public.

I want to acknowledge everyone who has dared to do so, artists and non-artists. In one way or another, they have contributed to the evolution of the way the human body is perceived.

To pay tribute to those who have dared, I will publish a series of articles to showcase self-portrait works that have particularly touched me.

painting nude womanTo begin, this painting by artist Chantal Joffe. I find it so easy to identify with this image! Looking at this self-portrait, it appears to me like a reflection, a mirror of my own feelings towards my body.

She has her head hanging down, which is exactly how I feel. There is too much discomfort and uncertainty in me to be able to lift my head and look straight forward with confidence.

My inner reality is cramped. I do not have the impression that I have much space in which to breathe.

The pale body seems to sway, adding a sense of instability. I recognize myself in the barely sketched features, as I’ve often felt like I’m only a rough draft of myself; an awkward outline that I have not yet managed to complete.

Nothing in this image seeks to please or seduce, and yet in the vulnerability of this nude self-portrait, there is an appeal for tenderness and caring, and a deep sense of humanity. Thank you, Chantal Joffe, for clearly expressing the emotions of so many women who are uncomfortable with their bodies!

Chantal Joffe undertook a year-long series of self-portraits of her face in 2018 which is well worth the visit. Sometimes sharing our face, in any state, is just as vulnerable as showing our bodies.

Self-image and false identification

We all want to look our best, all the time. It is human nature to want to be seen and appreciated. But if we don’t even know that we have been brainwashed by our visual culture into constantly evaluating our appearance against completely unattainable norms, how can we do anything other than follow the crowd?

nude drawing, self-portrait

In the history of humanity, has personal appearance has ever held as much importance? Didn’t there use to be groups, tribes, whose energies focused on activities to ensure survival for all, for the common good?  Today, more than ever, it seems like it’s all about me, my wants, my needs, my success; a bunch of competing me’s rather than groups of caring humans working together, motivated by mutual growth and support.

Many people fall into a form of slavery to their self-image, trying to be original and be noticed, yet at the same time not wanting to stray too far from accepted norms.

Others fall into a roller-coaster ride of seeking outside validation for their looks or their personal value, then suffering from devaluation when their self-judgement kicks in and makes them doubt not only their beauty, but their worth.

I have danced all of these dances intimately, and have heard many other women and men echo the pain and difficulties I’ve experienced. Ultimately, we are dealing with false images of ourselves that we build and destroy constantly, without recognizing who we really are.

How can we change these false images? We can blame  advertising or social media, but to really change the way we see, we have to change what we look at. We need to regularly see a variety of diverse bodies, not only in flattering clothing, but also, just  bodies, just the way are. Exposure to “regular people” nude really helps to normalize our perception of different body shapes, sizes and conditions.

Berlin artist Sophia Vogel offers an interesting take on people in their everyday lives doing things they love to do; first dressed, then nude. Notice if you find these images  amusing, shocking, ordinary or boring, or if they make you feel uncomfortable!