The Body in Exile: Figure Drawing as Radical Act

by Diane Thodos


It’s no coincidence that the rise of Conceptualism, both in our museums and in the academy, corresponds to the devaluation of traditional schooling in the arts. Who needs to go through the rigors of drawing from the figure…if all an artist has to do is find a predictably outrageous outlet for a predictably outrageous opinion?

Mario Naves,

On the Importance of Drawing1


…[T]he human body, as a nucleus, is rich in associations, and when it is turned into art these associations are not entirely lost... It is ourselves and arouses memories of all the things we wish to do with ourselves…

Kenneth Clark,

The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form2


It is hard to deny that we are now living through post-human times, in no small part because of the power of mass culture, technology, and propaganda over our lives, political systems, and the very life of nations themselves. In his 1964 book The Technological Society, Jacques Ellul warned about the increasing standardization of culture that has come to pass, not merely through technological mechanization, but through the colonization and control of thinking itself: “Technique requires predictability… It is necessary, then, that technique prevail over the human being…the individual must be fashioned by techniques…in order to wipe out the blots of his personal determination...”3

The postmodern and conceptual currents of the mainstream art world reflect this same phenomenon. Conceptualism by its very nature embraces the deskilling and de-education of art students and uncritically appropriates technically driven media accompanied by corresponding modes of conformist application and use. Examples of this tendency include Dan Flavin’s fluorescent tube installations and Joseph Kosuth’s readymades, which are accompanied by wall texts. Ellul understands how the embrace of technological “techniques” masquerades as creative discovery precisely because “[t]rue technique will know how to maintain the illusion of liberty, choice, and individually.”4 Is it any wonder why an art magazine like Artforum has always promoted figuration that ridicules itself through repetitiously deskilled, technical and banalized conceptual forms? This corresponds exactly with Ellul’s assertion that, “if technique demands the participation of everybody, this means that the individual is reduced to a few essential functions, which make him mass man. He remains ‘free’ but he can no longer escape being part of the mass.” 5

This is why the supremacy of conceptualism—a kind of mainstreamed “mass” art culture—doomed human life study and skill, essentially derailing the search for meaningful self-expression in art training. But even as Ronald Barthes’ postmodern assertion of the “death of the author” became the popular mantra of art theory in the ’80s and ’90s, the instinctive and intuitive drive to render the human figure and relate stories of human experience gave revitalized importance to the auteur in the form of the graphic novel and animated films. Even for digitally based animation, life drawing is important. Karl Gnass, who has trained Disney animators for decades, explains it critical role:

"You can draw animation and gesture without life drawing, but life drawing skills give you proportion, structure, perspective, and a certain vitality through rhythmic gestures…. Animators feel like these classes stimulate their creativity, because of what it takes to refine those skills. They’re creating neurological pathways for better imagination.”6

These quasi-popular art forms gave artists an outlet to reengage with storytelling, draftsmanship, and a relationship to their audience that avoided the exclusionary arrogance of the postmodern mainstream. Human content and skill were cynically banished from the center, forcing expressive media into the margins of the conceptual “fine art” mainstream.

A typical example of the application of Ellul’s “technique” in postmodern art is how life study was replaced with copying from photographs. Figures traced or rendered from photos often look dead for a good reason. No actual human presence is witnessed. No act of observation and using eye–hand coordination took place. No relationship between the artist and the human subject existed.

Today, learning to render the human figure with concentration and skill has become a radical act for a simple reason. Our technology-driven Internet age has made us comfortable with erasing the need to skillfully witness and attend to the human presence, and, by association, ourselves. Technological displacement and substitution detaches us from the core of creative experience. Figure drawing does the opposite. It increases the sense of human connection through the discipline that comes from hours of observation and eye-hand coordination. According to author Peter Steinhart:

“For many artists drawing is a way of exploring life. Edward Hill, professor of art at the University of Houston, declared, ‘The object of all drawing is to intensify experience.’… Because its aims are gradual and cumulative, drawing is a discipline, an organizing and training and honing of the imagination so that one may be ready to work spontaneously whenever called upon. It is a discipline that requires constant exercise.” 7

Between roughly 500 and 100 BC, Greek sculptors and sculptures such as Myron (Discus Thrower) and Praxiteles (Hermes Bearing the Child Dionysos) effectively invented the nude. Their great achievement was the unification of the body with the spirit into an idealized whole. This idealization was lost until the Renaissance, when the rediscovery of Hellenistic sculpture inspired great artists such as Michelangelo, Raphael, and Leonardo da Vinci. But according to Clark, the tradition was lost once again during the neoclassical period of the 19th century,

“…when nude figures, which had been evolved to express an idea, ceased to do so, and were represented for their perfection alone, they soon lost their value. This was the fatal legacy of neoclassicism….The academic nudes of the nineteenth century are lifeless because they no longer embodied real human needs and experiences.” 8

In the Modernist period of art from 1880 to the present, the transformative power of the ideal of the nude has been lost due to the loss of anatomical knowledge, concentration, and skill, along with a devalued sense of the body itself. But in spite of this loss, there are artists of the Modernist era like Edgar Degas, Auguste Rodin, Gustav Klimt, and Egon Schiele who are celebrated draftsmen of the figure. Even their simplest drawings radiate a tremendous vitality and immediacy of the human presence with masterful skill and expressive force.

It is worth mentioning the work of two British figure artists whose art has survived the conceptual bias of the mainstream. It was fortunate that Jenny Saville and Lucian Freud each received a solid skill-based education from their respective schools—something, as Saville has pointedly remarked, that has disappeared from art training. For both artists, the figure is observed with an almost furious concentration that exposes their subjects’ flaws with vulnerability and pathos, but also with an undeniable animal energy and fleshy intensity. The interiority of their subjects is filtered through the interiority of themselves, reasserting the power of subjective vision and the uniqueness of the human presence. Freud’s and Saville’s many years of mastery achieve this double reflection: that of their sitters and of themselves.

Like the mass culture that surrounds us, the mainstream art world has turned away from the life world we inhabit, abandoning the tools we need to express our all-too-human condition at a time when we need them most. This is why returning to the skill of drawing from life is radical. It breaks from all the “techniques” of mass culture by concentrating our minds and skills back on the human subject, and, by extension, our own subjectivity. Developing life-drawing skills brings about the possibility of reconnecting with life and resisting alienation. It also has the regenerative power to help us rediscover the reality of the self that lies within.



Diane Thodos is an artist and art critic who lives in Evanston, IL. She exhibits internationally and is in the collections of the Milwaukee Art Museum, the National Hellenic Museum, the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago, the Block Museum at Northwestern University, and the Illinois Holocaust Museum, among many others.


1.  Mario Naves, "On the Importance of Drawing," Too Much Art: Writings on Visual Culture by Mario Naves,, 2012

2. Kenneth Clark, The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form, Kingsport Press Inc., Kingsport Tennessee, 1971, p. 8

3. Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society, Vintage Books (a division of Random House), New York, 1964, p. 138

4. Ibid, p. 139

5. Ibid, p. 207

6. Susan Karlin, “Learning in the Flesh: Why Disney Sends Its Animators to Life Drawing Classes,”, July 23, 2014

7.  Peter Steinhart, Undressed Art: Why We Draw, Alfred Knopf, New York, 1964  p. 22-23

8. Clark, p. 26

Edgar Degas, After the Bath, Woman Drying Herself, circa 1890–1895, 41" x 39”.

Egon Schiele, Squatting Woman, 1918, graphite on paper, 17.7" x 11.6“. Collection of the Tate.

Gustav Klimt, Pregnant Woman and Man, 1903–1904, black chalk on paper, 17.6" x 11.8". Collection of the National Galleries of Scotland.

Lucian Freud, Painter Working, Reflection, 1993. The Lucian Freud Archive/Royal Academy of Arts.

Auguste Rodin, Nude lying on her back with right leg up, pencil and watercolor, 12 3/4" x 12”. Jules E. Mastbaum Collection of Rodin Drawings, Yale University Art Gallery.

Jenny Saville, Time, 2010, charcoal on paper. In private collection.

Praxiteles, Hermes Bearing the Child Dionysos. Parian marble, H. 7 ft. 1/2 in. Archaeological Museum of Olympia, Greece.



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