To see oursels as ithers see us - on being painted
The studio is a stark rectangular cube in an old warehouse, a metal framed window at one end and a rough concrete beam across the ceiling. Stacked on the floor against the side and hung on the walls are sketches and preparatory paintings of youthful nudes, older ladies with jewelled necks, men looking pleased with themselves, the ugly and the beautiful randomly side by side. From where I sit, on a platform supported by upturned plastic crates, I can see slate rooves. Only if I stand up and peer round at an angle do I glimpse the new London skyline and the bulbous rear of Norman Foster’s Albion Riverside apartments like a spaceship landed on extendable legs. We’re on Lavender Hill not far from Clapham Junction.
In front of me stands Rosalie behind her easel, a bit chatty but mainly creasing up her brow in concentrated assessment. She looks, casts her eye from the canvas to me and then back again before making confident strokes with a brush she holds two thirds up its handle. From time to time she takes a mirror and, holding it at right angles to her eye, checks her work by seeing a reverse image of it. Then, resting her hand on a maulstick, makes adjustments.
I must lower my chin, look to her left and hold my head up straight, a bit more to the right because I have a spinal tilt acquired over the years. It’s therapeutic and, I imagine, a bit like having your nails done, when some other person attends so exclusively and committedly to your person. And in this pose I look at her as much as she looks at me so that at the end of three hours I know her in such detail that, had I the artistic skills, I could paint her with a thoroughgoing depth of understanding.
I feel self-indulgent enjoying all this attention? Then the sudden crisis of confidence: what a wreck I am, how withered on the bough, and how particularly spotty today. How self-deceived have I been all this while about my body image? But we agree this is art and in the vanity department it’s good to bring neutrality to the exercise. We are at once both forgetting and celebrating the self, and I point out (because we have been having some very searching theological discussion) that Rosie’s task is potentially of the highest moral order because she’s engaged in seeing the other with self-giving attention. Of course she could ruin the moral enterprise by painting to flatter, in order to earn more commissions, and to become a society portraitist commanding high prices. But she’s more serious than that and I look forward to our next experiment in the meaning of life.