How do they do it? It would take some gall. Of course there are a few with salacious intent – but the rest seem genuinely to work from a higher motive. Sometimes money will change hands in the negotiations. If that’s the case, why not simply hire from the plethora of models seemingly willing to offer that same service for a fee? But for many that would defeat the purpose. Some consider those who make a living from it not ‘real’ women. One cannot get to the ‘essence’ with a hireling – they are all false. It would show up in the image or on canvas. For some it is the purity that they are after and for that they need to also convince that they are pure in intent. They rely on citing their artistic resume. Some would allow husbands/partners/boyfriends, perhaps even mothers no doubt, to be present – but again, does this sully the intention? We, of course, can come at it from the other angle – why would a woman – or man for that matter – agree to do what is being asked of them? But it does happen – some organise it simply by handing out flyers with a proposal, but others, like Hubert Amrheim, simply approach a subject, suitable for his purposes, outside railway stations or cafes and puts it to them face to face. In his novel, Swiss author Peter Stamm looks at the motivation from both those sides – from the artist’s perspective asking the individual to pose nude for him back in his studio, as well as from one of his subjects prepared to disrobe for him. But, imagine it, walking up to a woman and asking her to take her clothes of for you.
Hubert A is able, successfully, to do just that. Mostly he has negative responses – even rude ones – and that is to be expected. But there are enough positive ones to make his project viable. Once back in his studio he photographs these compliant women naked doing mundane household duties – ironing, brewing coffee, making the bed. Examining the dozens of photographs he takes of each volunteer, he only selects for transferring to canvas those containing the pure essence he is seeking. It works. The results are in demand and he garners enough fame/notoriety so that Gillian decides to interview him for her television show. She finds him distant, austere even – not quite what she expected. But she’s intrigued. There’s not much life in her marriage to Mattias, so she contacts Hubert anonymously just to see where it leads. Where it leads is first to a coffee – but eventually, very reluctantly, the artist agrees to her desire to pose for him. But you see, being a famous face, she isn’t ‘real’ in his view. He has similar misgivings about photographing her sans clothing. The photographs don’t reach down into her ‘essence’. She is disappointed by this and it’s followed by an attempt at seduction – not by him, but the reverse. He immediately gives her her marching orders, but she succeeds in obtaining her images off him. Mistake. Hubby discovers them, is disgusted and goes ballistic. This ends up with Matthias dead and her face so smashed up she is now unrecognisable as a celebrity. Her television days are over. Much later, with a new face, Gillian – now Jill, has moved on to an existence as an entertainment coordinator at a cheesy alpine resort. Here she has a chance encounter with Hubert. He’s in town, having moved on from his nudes, to stage an exhibition at a local gallery. Trouble is – he has a dose of artists’ block – which eventually leads to him unravelling. Guess who becomes his carer? A relationship of sorts flares between the pair with never short of interesting results.
And that is as good a description as I can provide of this slight, in terms of page numbers, tome from Mr Stamm without giving too much away. He was the first wordsmith from his native land to be short-listed for the Man Booker so, despite the obvious possibilities, this offering from him is quite literary. It is a gem, in my view. Despite its brevity, it is beautifully structured and written. ‘All Days are Night’ still ticks all the boxes as a page turner. Opening with Gillian/Jill gradually emerging from a coma as a result of Mattias’ meltdown, Stamm first puts the back-story in place, then fast-forwards, in the second half, to the re-connection between the two main protagonists. Excellent stuff.
Earlier this year I attended a showing of a local artist’s collection of nudes. I talked to the dauber for a while, but never bought myself to ask him how he found such a stunning array of subjects, prepared to disrobe for him, in a smallish place like Hobart. Did he need to go out into the Elizabeth Street Mall to find ‘real’ women in order to reach their ‘essence’ through his gifts with a paint brush. This book set me wondering about that question I refrained from asking again.