Have I got nudes for you: Emer O'Toole on the art of being naked
Source:theguardian Author:Emer O'Toole Date: 2016-01-04 Size:
Towards the end of a bizarre period of my life when I was famous for having hairy armpits, the artist Camilla Cannon got in touch to ask if……

Emer O’Toole painted by Camilla Cannon: Cannon contacted the writer, asking her to sit for her, after O’Toole’s appeared on ITV This Morning in 2012, to talk about body hair.

Towards the end of a bizarre period of my life when I was famous for having hairy armpits, the artist Camilla Cannon got in touch to ask if I would sit for a nude oil painting. Camilla, who runs her own art school, was then in the final year of her degree at the Heatherley School of Fine Art in London. She wanted to paint me for her end of year show.

Due to the aforementioned armpit fame, after a 2012 appearance on ITV’s This Morning to talk about body hair, I had been asked to collaborate on dozens of projects over the previous few months: everything from writing a children’s book about feminine grooming to getting my kit off for the Sunday Sport. Mostly I said no. Kids should be reading about dragons, fairies, time-travelling ice-cream vans and talking bunnies, not the nefarious machinations of global capital on female bodies. And if I wanted a load of teenage boys laughing at my tits, I would simply hop in my time-travelling ice-cream van and set the dial to “adolescence”.

‘The few darker brushstrokes under the arms of Manet’s Olympia have been interpreted as, if not quite armpit hair, at least womanly stubble.’

But Camilla’s idea was right up my street. She wanted to paint a traditional subject in a traditional medium, but include something that continues to be erased in western art: female body hair. As someone prone to puzzling over the fact that painted ladies are as hairless as baby hamsters, even in art from eras when women didn’t shave, I was intrigued. Sure, Goya’s La Maja Desnuda has an enticing hint of pubic hair, Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde is a bush explosion, and the few darker brushstrokes under the arms of Manet’s Olympia have been interpreted as, if not quite armpit hair, at least womanly stubble. Overall, however, our museums and galleries are full of women who have been plucked to the pores. So I said yes.

If I wanted teenage boys to laugh at my tits, I'd hop in a time-travelling ice-cream van and set the dial to adolescence

I am comfortable being naked. I attribute this to my mother, who thinks it necessary to be fully clothed in a domestic setting only if male visitors are due to arrive. She will cheerfully answer the door to her girlfriends in her knickers and bra. Once, an ex-boyfriend and I lived with her for two months after we came back from travelling. A few weeks in, he confessed, “The first time I saw your mum naked, it was weird. And the second time, it was weird. But now, it’s not even weird any more, which is really weird.” All of which makes her sound like some kind of free-love, earth-goddess hippy. She isn’t. She’s one of that breed of practical, commonsensical Irish farm women who thinks squeamishness about bodies is nonsense. Sure, don’t we all have bits?

These genetic credentials, combined with the fact that, unlike Mum, I am a bit of a hippy, have fostered a strong predilection for naked art projects. When Spencer Tunick came to Dublin looking for volunteers to take part in a mass nude photoshoot, I signed up the moment I could convince a friend to buddy up.

Spencer Tunick’s mass nude photoshoot in Dublin in 2008 was too enticing for O’Toole to resist: she signed up as soon as she persuaded a friend to join in, too.

One Christmas, I asked a partner to draw me in the nip as a gift. I thought it might be sexy, like Rose and Jack in Titanic. “Paint me like one of your French girls,” I would sigh breathily, initiating two solid hours of saucy eye contact and sexual tension.

In actuality, sitting for a life drawing is sexy only if you have a Euclid fetish. Imagine someone squinting at you for two hours as if you are a perplexing series of circles, triangles and geometric lines. I fell asleep. When I woke up, my ex was muttering about foreshortening and giving the impression that my naked body was the last thing anyone would want to look at ever again. The drawing is lovely, though. It’s hanging in my hall. Occasionally, someone will ask, “Is that you?” I take refuge in ambiguity and answer, “Does it look like me?”

Camilla’s studio was in her home in Brixton, south London. She greeted me at the front door, open-faced and with an easy manner. We went up narrow, creaky stairs to a bright attic room, rays from a skylight falling across bare floorboards, a couch for the subject, an easel for the artist, and the whole place crammed with colourful canvases.

‘Did you see the nudie picture of me on the internet?’ I asked my friend Dan. ‘It made me blush,’ he replied

I quizzed Camilla about what it’s like to be a female oil painter: a woman working in a medium that has historically been a boys’ club. Apparently, it feels very good indeed. When she started out, she worried that she had internalised the male gaze and was, unwittingly, replicating idealised young, white, slim, conventionally attractive female nudes. This is something she continues to grapple with: thus the decision to paint a hairy feminist. She also likes to paint women in power poses; she has painted her sister in a “man-spreading” position, unapologetically taking up space, her elbows held high and cocky, legs swung open. And, Camilla feels, nothing balances the scales quite so satisfyingly as beautiful, nude men, painted by women.

Having arranged myself comfortably on the couch, and adjusted angles under her direction, I dozed and listened to the radio. It’s really very relaxing to know that you have nothing to do for four hours but stay still. And it didn’t seem in the least bit odd to be unclothed under the aesthetically scrutinising eye of an all-but-stranger. It helps, I think, that Camilla has been on both sides of the brush. As a twentysomething, she used to model herself. Once, she was booked for an over-65s art class at a community centre. She turned up, stripped and pottered out starkers to the room full of pensioners, only to be informed that this was not a life-drawing session and politely requested to put her clothes back on.

We took a break halfway through for lunch. I told Camilla that I was surprised at how relaxed I felt, and asked if she’d had any awkward sittings. Not really – she tries to find nude models who are comfortable in their bodies. There was one male friend, however, who admitted after the session that it had been hard work to keep himself in check. He kept thinking sexy thoughts and getting a semi. Camilla didn’t even notice.

I have more or less separated nudity and sex. I don’t automatically sexualise other people’s naked bodies

Back in the studio, I thought about the relationship between nakedness and sexiness. Perhaps because of my family, or perhaps because I have spent much of my adult life in and around the theatre, where people are never happier than when taking off their clothes, I have more or less separated nudity and sex. I don’t automatically sexualise other people’s naked bodies, and I don’t feel that I’m behaving in a sexual way just by virtue of being naked. If I suggest to my partner that we have a naked hula-hooping competition, that’s because I think it will be funny, not sexy. If it were socially acceptable to propose naked hula-hooping competitions to all my friends, I would. In short, life modelling did not give me a semi. Still, it was good to know that Camilla wouldn’t have noticed either way.

“Right,” she declared confidently a few hours later. “That’s it. Done.” I arose from my semi-slumber, padded barefoot around behind her and looked at my body, my face, translated through someone else’s perception. It was unexpected, even startling. It is such a pleasure to have a painting tell you that you are beautiful.

‘Goya’s La Maja Desnuda has an enticing hint of pubic hair, but museums and galleries are full of women plucked to the pores.’

The Hairy Feminist, as the portrait was instructively entitled, won first place at Camilla’s degree show, and went on to be part of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters exhibition at London’s Mall Galleries, where it received a commendation from the RSPP. Alastair Adams, the then president of the society, said the portrait found its “own painting language” that set it apart from more academic, established modes of painting. The judges didn’t mention my awesome armpits but, amid a sea of smooth female nudes, I’m pretty sure they noticed them.

In her memoir Bossypants, Tina Fey says she has no feminist objections to Photoshop, because everyone knows it’s fake, and that aesthetically altering our bodies is just something humans do. If you’re going to be angry at Photoshop, she says, you also have to be mad at earrings for making our lobes unrealistically sparkly, at people turning sideways in photographs and at oil paintings – because nobody really looks like that.

Fey, we all know, is funny as hell. And also self-aware: she admits that, in the main, she’s arguing for the feminist credentials of a computer-generated thigh gap because being digitally nipped and tucked makes her feel good. But her Photoshop defence is objectively wrong. There is a plethora of studies linking exposure to idealised magazine images with lowered self-esteem in girls and women. Oh, life would be so much simpler if the culture we consumed did not affect our thoughts, beliefs and behaviours. Propaganda would be powerless. The advertising industry would collapse. Blurred Lines wouldn’t stick in my head for hours every time I hear it.

Rather, the medium itself announces that you are art, and art is beautiful and, ergo, you are to be interpreted as such. And if artists such as Camilla choose subjects that actively challenge beauty and gender norms, then their work has the potential to redefine these things – to make them more inclusive, more diverse, more feminist. Oils make the subject beautiful, not by prodding and poking the body until it matches up with an unrealistic ideal, but by framing the body in a way that allows people to see its beauty.

After our success, Camilla posted a snap of the portrait to Facebook and tagged me. I had a brief “oo-er” moment, but then decided just to be cool with it. Sure, don’t we all have bits? I went for a pint with my friend Dan that evening. “Did you see the nudie picture of me on the internet?” I asked. “It made me blush,” he replied.

A few friends of a less bashful temperament also saw it and asked me if, as a feminist, it felt liberating to model; if I felt empowered by the results. I had to say no. Don’t get me wrong: I think that Camilla’s art is doing feminist work. However, if you, like me, are already at the point where you try to convince fellow academic conference delegates that skinny-dipping at three in the morning is a perfectly acceptable and professional activity, then you probably don’t need to be any more liberated when it comes to nakedness. Further liberation might lead to actual arrest. And that would be counterproductive.

As for empowering – and I’m speaking only for myself – I don’t associate feeling beautiful with being powerful. This might be because the times in my life when I drew the most confidence from what I looked like were times when I wasn’t really confident at all. I feel empowered by, and deeply grateful for, my education. I feel empowered by my writing, by the love in my life. By getting my tits out? Not so much.

Being painted was, however, fun and pleasurable. And that’s OK, too. I’m pretty sure I’m allowed to do things with my body because they are fun rather than because they’re empowering. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a naked hula-hooping competition to win before bedtime.

[Editor] 张艳