I ran across this image of a painting by David Hettinger, an accomplished Realist who lives in Illinois. I was immediately struck by the fact that the model’s pubes are “trimmed”, something that seems to immediately qualify the work as being “of the moment.” It reminded me of a series of drawings that I saw in the early 1980s at Vose Galleries in Boston, a series of nudes by William McGregor Paxton. The figures, all female, were pretty conventional save for the fact that they all wore high heels. These were done probably a few decades before the famed Vargas Girls graced the pages of Playboy magazine.
It started me thinking about the ambiguous relationship between nudity and sexuality in art. After all, the figures from the Classical period were usually devoid of pubes at all, and it was said that the great Victorian art critic John Ruskin had his marriage to Effie Gray annulled on the grounds that her having pubic hair was a deformity. This story is obviously apocryphal, but telling nonetheless with regards to our cultural history.
Hettinger himself, in the facebook caption that accompanies this painting, says “So many times my models take better poses on breaks than I set up to paint that I just began painting when the first break came.” I believe this may result because we impose fewer preconceptions on the model during her break than when we are posing her according to our wishes. Our paintings come closer to a reportage of the facts rather than a construction of them. Such reportage allows the unexplored extension of reality to enter the painting, and helps to weave a larger and more universal narrative than we would be capable of ourselves.
This is perhaps the consequential difference between Hettinger’s painting and those drawings of Paxton. One has to doubt that Hettinger ordered his model to shave her pubes. She did it on her own, perhaps for reasons of hygiene, more likely grooming herself for a lover. The artist could have painted the missing hair but chose not to, letting our attention and imagination fall where they will. In Paxton’s case one has the impression that the artist was working out his own fetishistic inclinations, and the result comes off as being a bit cheezy.
I often tire of looking at images of models posed in studio settings, there being no reference to an experience beyond the tedium of work. I am usually less forgiving of the same bored models arranged in an elaborate Classical tableau referencing some allegory or myth. One can too easily imagine the nudes stripped of their lush background foliage, returned to their origins of sagging model stand, tattered and musty old drapes and suspended plumbob. I’d like to see more of these casual narratives such as David Hettinger has provided here, done while the model was distracted and concerned with something other than holding her pose.