A project for a TV Reality Show featuring women of a wide age range, from all walks of life, taking part in a daring venture in which they throw off their inhibitions to pose naked for art’s sake. The format calls for modern muses to rival those found by the old masters, in order to create contemporary artworks with something new to say. It is not in any way competitive, it is simply about matching the work of the old master to the modern muse. Ultimately, every woman who takes part is bellissima in her own way.
Patrick Nicholas has been preparing pictures based loosely on works of art for over 30 years and has a lot of experience. The women however are all amateurs and they perform gratis, for the love of art.
A number of women participate in each series of 10 episodes. We see the woman in her day to day life. We learn something of her interests, her work, her family, her background. She will explain what drew her to take part – this is important in the selection process. The woman herself, if she has an interest in art will be a part of the decision-making process when it comes to choosing the old master painting, sculpture, or even poem or song that she will be taking part in. Her opinion is extremely important. She can make suggestions, she can reject a work of art she does not feel comfortable with or enthusiastic about.
The 28m documentary from 2007, Women Portraying Art, is essentially a pilot in which we see the women at home and work, hear their feelings about the shoot and more. In Italian with English subtitles. Director Leonardo Colla.
Who has the XX factor? Some women will drop out along the way in order to add an element of suspense – who will go through to actually collecting her finished picture and appearing in the final exhibition in a gallery? Some will simply change their minds, some will be too embarrassed, some will have someone close who does not approve, some will prove to be unsuitable for some reason – this is always the hardest but it is rare.
Casting is always in normal clothes. We never see the woman naked before she is selected. The prospective model should be a lot more than just looking right for the role – her personality is vital to the success of the episode. It is very important to create an atmosphere of both mystery and suspense. The surprise element on the day, on set, is always important. However, women may supply recent photos of themselves as part of the casting process – but nothing explicit.
If possible we construct some sort of set. The theatrical element is important, but theatrical in a way that creates a sense of ease as well as fantasy. We try to avoid Green Screen/Chroma key as this inevitably leads to a cold atmosphere. If possible we prefer to use a black background.
Make-up is an important part of putting the woman at her ease and of raising her self esteem before the shoot starts. Even if the make-up itself is not all that relevant or even hardly seen, it is important. Simonetta the make-up artist, is always present on set to provide assurance as well as assistance with styling.
At the end of the series an exhibition will be held in a fashionable location and/or gallery. Each picture will be printed in a numbered edition of 10. Press and TV will be invited. There will be awards given, but not on account of the individual’s beauty. The three pictures chosen will result in participation in another series to be shot on location abroad, in Italy – the land of Renaissance Art.
At the end of each series a book is published. This will be essentially a catalogue with the story behind each picture. The profits will go to a charity chosen by the women themselves. Take a musical flip through the book below – you can stop where you like.
How did the women themselves feel about posing naked for art’s sake? British women’s magazine Easy Living by Condé Nast asked three of the women who took part: why did they do it? How did they feel during the shoot? Any misgivings? Read the interviews below in Portrait of a Lady and find out.
It is important that each woman expresses why taking part is important to her, her hopes and fears, any particular personal hang-ups. Her thoughts about the shoot and the final picture. Several of the women have written about the experience for women’s magazines.
– Easy Living Magazine
“Three years ago, Patrick described to me how he wanted to interpret Botticelli’s Venus, but I wondered, with my face and body, could I represent such an important work of art?
Soon after our first meeting, something struck Patrick about my body. I have a big scar on my tummy, on the right side, as a result of a surgical operation nine years ago. This scar is important to me and I’m not ashamed of it. Patrick was inspired to do a different Venus — a Venus who’d lived, scarred! I was hooked on the idea.
At the shoot, Patrick really put me at my ease and I didn’t feel embarrassed, because it was done with discretion and professionalism, and he was very courteous. I’d had misgivings about being completely naked, but I knew that it wasn’t gratuitous nudity.
The portrait is framed on the wall of my bedroom — I’m so proud of it. What’s more, I’ve got photos of the whole sitting, from make-up and hairdressing, right through to the end of the shoot. I’d definitely do it again. And, as Venus, I’m not bad, am I?”
Based on The Birth of Venus by Botticelli- Bernarda
– Easy Living Magazine
“When I left home in Uruguay to become a model, I promised my mother I wouldn’t ever go topless. I knew, though, that I’d grown up in an environment in which intelligence was given more credit than sensuality.
I got to know Patrick in 1988 when I was only 19 and had just arrived in Italy after a brief period of study in Paris. The idea was to have some photos taken for free in order to build up a book that I could take to Milan. When I entered Patrick’s loft, I found myself in what appeared to be a sort of Baroque theatre — and that’s when I found out about the project to reinterpret famous paintings.
Posing nude for a photographer isn’t like standing naked in the middle of a busy shopping mall. We’re talking about something intimate that’s a lot less embarrassing. An art photographer doesn’t see his subject in the same way as a fashion photographer. He sees the sitter as a means of expressing his idea, whereas the fashion photographer uses the model to make her appear as beautiful as possible. And that’s why Patrick’s work is different — he works like a painter but using photography.
I explained the situation to my model booker, and they didn’t agree — they thought a photo like that in my book at the outset of my career would have been a bit strong. Not that a nude was bad or that basing a photo on a painting was wrong. It just wasn’t ‘fashion’ and an artistic shot wasn’t commercial enough. Of course, it would have been different if it had been a Helmut Newton calendar… But then I would have been condemned to exclusively doing that kind of work.
Despite these misgivings, I decided to go ahead with the photo and just not tell the agency. I kept it from my family and didn’t use it in my portfolio for years. The result was different from what I expected. It wasn’t the most flattering of shots: you could see folds of flesh in my side and I also felt my expression looked a bit vacant. Patrick gave me a postcard of my photo. I took the card home and, with a sigh, put it in a drawer and forgot about it.
Until, that is, a couple of years ago when I was working as a journalist for the arts pages of Il Giornale, a national newspaper, and Patrick called me to ask permission to publish the photo, which was to be used in a feature about his work in an English newspaper.
Looking at the photo all those years later was a shock. There I was — after 17 years had gone by — in all my youthful innocence and strength. A new beginning, a story to tell; I realised that all the photos taken of me in these intervening years had never captured what was so natural in the postcard. I was how I was when I arrived in Europe. I’ve now got a big print and it’s proudly hanging on my wall. No one has ever given me such a precious gift.”
Based on La Grande Odalisque by Ingres- Casalisca
– Easy Living Magazine
“I decided to do the photo because it seemed fun, but then I also realised it would be an excellent exercise in trusting someone else. Sometimes we take things too seriously, sometimes we tend to concentrate on ourselves, and at others we tend to want to be in control of everything.
Posing for a photograph means it is up to the photographer to interpret who you are, to see you in a way that’s different from how you see yourself. It means putting yourself in a position in which you have no power — and that intrigued me.
I don’t have any particular body hang-ups, although, as a child, I was ashamed of my jug ears! Now it just depends on how I feel about myself, if I’m satisfied with what I’m doing, if I’m with fun people, people I find stimulating. I’m convinced that beauty comes from expressiveness and spontaneity, from the contradictions that are in all of us. So a ‘defect’ can easily become an individual characteristic, something of extra worth. Therefore, I think I have thousands of defects that, depending on the circumstance, become reasons for complexes or reasons for pride.
On the shoot, I did feel very naked. What we wear, our make-up, hairstyle, are nothing if not psychological masks. They condition our way of gesticulating, of sitting, of walking in the shoot, I felt completely free. I don’t mean to say that I found it easy, in fact, in the hours beforehand I had doubts about how I would feel afterwards. My worry was how I would feel about myself in the photo… but then we’re back to talking about trust. It’s not my picture. It’s not my creation. I simply lent my body to the realisation of an idea by someone else.
Because the picture was only taken very recently, I haven’t got a copy yet, although I’ve seen it on an email.
I don’t know if I’d hang it up in the house. Maybe my mum would like to have it!”
Based on Susanna and the Elders by Tintoretto- Alter Ego
– Cleo Magazine
“I’m nude, bar a red pashmina covering my bits, in a room filled with strangers. Odder still, I’m but seconds away from losing the pashmina. I feel cool beads of sweat rolling down my inner arms as I look around the room at everything except the camera before me.
I’m in a restored farmhouse in the countryside of Bologna, Italy, surrounded by furniture dating back to the 18th century.
I’d be appreciative of such authenticity but my mind isn’t on it – it’s on making sure my boobs look perky!
I’m readying myself to pose in my birthday suit, which is 25 years old, for photographer Patrick Nicholas, but I still can’t believe that I’m here, doing this. When I was growing up, I was the tall, large-boned girl with puppy fat, while my sister scored the lean dancer’s body. I couldn’t help but compare myself to her, and so my whole life I’ve felt big and ungraceful.
Despite my body hang-ups, I’ve always loved artworks of the human form – particularly portraits of naked Renaissance women in all their curvy glory. When I heard about Patrick’s work, for which ordinary Italian women have stripped off to be immortalised as classic beauties in updated reproductions of world- famous paintings, I was in awe of said women. They seemed to have a peaceful confidence in their skin. I wanted to be involved in this photographer’s work. I wanted to feel womanly, natural, sensual and real. I wanted to push past my insecurities and there seemed no better time. Single and living abroad, I was far away from everyone back home who knew me and my hang-ups. I could be anyone. And starkers.
Now, I’m glancing down at my chest and thinking, these breasts are a little too real for my liking. Hot from the lighting all sides, they sit deflated. Feigning self-assuredness, I unwrap my red security blanket, reminding myself that the eyes of the photographer are trained on the whole scene. Sitting carefully, I stretch my legs out in front of me, trying to look as lean as possible. But this position isn’t makes my belly look round and warm like a freshly-baked pudding, soft to the touch.
Patrick tells me to rest the typewriter on my lap. I’m supposed to be a war-time press correspondent, stripped bare, reporting from a basement on the horrors live seen. Meanwhile, I’m hoping this doesn’t become a horror that my dad sees.
I’ve only told the women of my family about my plans to pose naked in Italy.- “Mom it’s art. Not porn,” I reassured her over the phone. “It’s a brilliant concept. His photos are syndicated around the world- there’s the chance I may end up in a coffee table book or hanging in a gallery one day…” Mom was told.
I refrained from telling my grandmother. I wasn’t sure Grandma Maria would understand. I know that by posing. I’m giving the one-finger salute to a generation that stifled a woman’s sexuality with moral oppression. My gran, with her huge boobs that all the boys loved (her words) would have been great in such photos, but it never would have happened. She would have been a disgrace. Would I be seen as the same?
As much as I know I am meant to look curvy and natural in my photo, before this shoot I had visions of myself captured forever as a size 10 (although it’s not a size I ever recall being). So, three weeks before I was due to fly to Italy I gave up sugar. A week before the shoot I booked myself in with a beautician, asking that not one unnecessary bit of body hair remain.
Yes I was really… ready to pose for the shot Patrick and originally discussed, that is. When we first met in Rome, we’d agreed on reproducing a Gustav Klimt painting, where half of my chest would be exposed in the photo. But soon afterwards, Patrick emailed over “The Reading Girl” by Theodore Roussel – a painting from around 1866 of a woman sitting stretched out in a chair, reading. In the buff.
Full blown nudity was not discussed. I could handle a breast or two, but anything else? Every curve of me, captured in a photo, to serve a constant reminder that I was never really as thin as the other girls my age? But I got over it. And that’s how I found myself naked in front of a camera in an old restored farmhouse in Italy. Rather, that’s how I found myself. Period.
Looking at the final product, I see the beauty of the female form in myself. I feel vulnerable but powerful. I had hinted to Patrick that “my boobs could be a bit rounder”, and on seeing the final image I thought that my Photo-shopped breasts now looked normal. Patrick replied that he hadn’t changed a thing. Suddenly, I recognised me in the photo, no air-brushing. It was a revelation. In stripping off my clothes I stripped off a layer of self-loathing I had for my body. In revealing my breasts I also revealed that I’m perhaps more in touch with my sexuality than I lead others to believe. I feel neither shame, nor embarrassment.
I love the fact that one day I’ll be able to show my children what their mother did in her day, before her breasts were knocking at her knees. I’ll just have to make sure they don’t mention it in front of my dad – Papa Sanfilippo would never understand!
© Cleo 2007, Katia Sanfilippo
Based on Reading Girl by Roussel- Correspondent
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