Judith D. Schwartz


Art Students' League, New York, 1916

As soon as she got to life class that day, Carlotta knew things were different. She hardly noticed a classmate greeting her. ("Wake up, Carlotta, it's 1 P.M.!") She rushed through the preparations she usually savored: sharpening the pencils then laying them out according to grade—hard, soft, and ebony. She was suffused with a rarefied impatience, almost an aggressiveness, poised not so much to achieve as to attack. She wanted to will something miraculous to happen. She wanted to draw something stunning. She wanted to surprise herself.

She usually regarded drawing as a performance. As skilled as she was she was obliged to be good. And she complied. Her executions were impeccable, her contours sure. The challenge—one which kept the pitch of anxiety just high enough to keep her striving—was to live up to the standard she herself had set. She idolized her teachers. That was how she motivated herself, holding to a steady line of growth, that slowly ascending line moving towards a theoretical vanishing point which could only be perfection. She took in each teacher's viewpoint totally and uncritically; once a new one came along she would drop the old ideas as though her admiration had been no more than a childish crush.

She played to her teachers, catering to each one's vanities. George, probably her most famous instructor, regarded the human form as a kind of plastic architecture, so the autumn she studied with him she worked on form and perspective. She began to see the world around her in terms of angles and planes. She felt immensely powerful: everything she saw could be contained within the lines. Everything was draw-able.

J.P., as dreamy and uncertain as George was clear and fixed, preferred rounded forms. "Think of the body as a circle carved into shape," he used to say. "The lines you draw are always modifying that same circle." He was a tall, spindly man—the antithesis of his own idealized type—and as he talked he would swing his long arm like the roving second hand of an enormous clock. When she studied with him, she made her figures voluptuous, globular. This practice, too, altered her inner life as well as her work. Her visual world became softer, with edges only hinted at and never defined. Her eye was drawn to the curves and ambiguities of nature, not the keen specificity of what men build.

In her mind, she sometimes imagined her teachers fighting over her. This made every stylistic decision either an homage to or a slap against one or the other, a dramatic turn of the plot. Usually, however, she was loyal to the teacher of the moment.

Dawes, her current teacher, was frustrating because his judgment was so erratic. He'd get excited about one drawing—waving his hands, as though trying to coax the figure from the page so as to speak for itself—and then coolly dismiss one quite similar. For this reason, she didn't hold his opinions as high as some of the others. She sort of braced herself against him, yielding only slightly when he warmed to her work.

The one way in which she always won his esteem—and this was, she knew, the one strong card she held in her hand—was by the fact she was so advanced for her age. That was just the kind of praise she thrived on. With her youth, she had potential where someone else equally skilled might simply have proficiency. Potential was so much more rare and desirable than "ability," "competence," or "facility"—mere terms of consolation for the terminally second-rate. She reveled in her potential. She felt she had an endless supply, enough so that she could save and save and never have to spend it. It was potential—and the proof of it in her work—that she relied on whenever she wanted to impress. And she took as much pride in her ability to impress as in her ability to create.

But today she felt different. She was uninterested in what her teacher would think—defiant even. She thought of last week, when Dawes had selected another student's work to submit to a competition, and felt only disgust. There was just one person now who she wanted to impress and he didn't care how she drew. She wished she knew what he did care about so she could win him for certain. The drawing had to be for someone besides a teacher—it had to be for her. She felt angry with her teachers, and all those who flirted with her allegiances or toyed with her talent. Did they think she was so easily taken?

She felt the thick steam of rage sitting on her chest. Why would being in love make her feel so angry? She always thought that love brought peacefulness, that it created an enclosure of self-sufficiency and satisfaction. Then what was this relentless hunger? Why did love heighten her sense of wanting rather than give her a feeling of having? Would there ever be a point of having, a time when this gnawing presence would ease?

In those crystalline moments when Jack was rubbing her cheek—stroking so imperceptibly she didn't know if it was his finger that she sensed or the air it displaced—she remembered thinking that she'd be able to keep that feeling forever, that it was hers to retain, recall, redeem. She did keep it, but not the way she wanted: as warmth glowing in reserve, like the pilot light in a stove. Now it was nothing more than a reference point, repeatedly reminding her that this is what a moment can be. She had always thought that kind of happiness was, at least, theoretically possible—she was an active daydreamer after all—but now that she knew it as not only a potentiality but a potentiality that could be realized, everything else suffered in contrast.

Including her art. She now knew the horrible truth: her drawing lacked life. She was all precision and no passion. She could illustrate, but not illuminate. None of the faces she had ever drawn could express love, she thought despairingly. None of her figures betrayed any knowledge of it; her reclining nudes were languorous out of laziness or dissipation, not contained lust. She was disgusted by the artist she had become: wasn't the point of art to express feelings? Refined feelings, perhaps" but feelings nonetheless. She wanted to smash her austere style and begin again, working from the heart rather than the eye. She wanted to do this concretely, like breaking a pencil in two, hearing the definite crack.

She began drawing with charcoal this time, something she never did. Its uncompromising blackness appealed to her at that moment. The model began the first set of quick poses: too quick, Carlotta thought. She had trouble getting into the right rhythm: draw, flip-the-page; draw, flip-the-page. In an attempt to keep pace she turned the charcoal sideways, drawing with a broad, flat edge rather than the point. After a few quick sketches she saw that something new was happening: drawing became a physical act rather than a mental one. Her hand seemed to have some knowledge, or memory, of what she was drawing. She was responding to what the model was experiencing, not what the teacher would say.

Working from a point assumes a certain emptiness; the line cuts into the space, articulating it, but provides no more than the bare outline. Here, she was working with broad ribbons of darkness, building layer by layer as shade and texture began to emerge. There was no articulation, only suggestion. As she drew she could watch the charcoal unroll its pigment across the surface, creating a grainy effect not unlike mood. It was not only color she was casting on the page, but feeling too. It seemed that the line is conducive to intellect; shadow to emotion. She felt a surge of relief, as if the darkness of the charcoal had been lifted from her, leaving her lighter and freer.

"Is your arm tired?" Dawes demanded as he circled about the room. "If not, it should be." He chuckled, enjoying the thought of their labors. As he walked he would glance at the drawings and quickly assess them with his trained eye without letting on what he thought. He was a dapper man who always wore a shirt and trousers as white and crisp as fresh bond stock. Art was work, but teaching art at least retained the veneer of gentility. He smelled of strong leaf tea.

Carlotta would listen for the sound of his feet, feigning indifference to his attentions but feeling her heart pound with the fear that he would look at her sketch and see her limitations, limitations she wasn't even aware of herself. During the first long pose he paused and stood behind Carlotta for what felt like a very long time. She could hear his raspy breathing, and then the rhythmic squeak of him rocking back and forth on his feet, as though he had found some beat in the swing of her arm was moving in counterpoint.

She felt her tension rise with curiosity: What was he thinking? Did he like what she was doing, or was she making a fool of herself? Then she got annoyed with her own anxiety. Why wouldn't he go on to someone else and leave her alone? She pictured him an intruder rather than an audience. She suddenly resented the power he had over everyone's art, the power she had given him. She tried to shut him out, pretend he wasn't there. She began to have a proprietary feeling about what she was drawing, and felt somehow that he was trespassing, even stealing from her, by looking.

"Keep going," he said in a hoarse whisper, so abruptly she felt the sound had come from the inside of her own head. His voice was so intimate it unnerved her. She heard the shift of his weight as he stepped away and moved on to the student at her right, continuing the rounds he had begun. She felt her energy soar, whether from his approval or his leaving she wasn't sure.

Her arm was feeling the soft, inner burn that comes with using new muscles. When drawing, usually she would tense up her arm, holding it tight against her chest, concentrating all her force on the tip of the pen. But now the charcoal was part of the wider sway of her arm, not the focal point. As the stick wore down, she held it deep in her fist as a child wields a crayon. Instead of a careful application she simply aimed the stick at the paper in a very rough way. This seemed like random guesswork but Carlotta knew that it wasn't. Her arm was moving around in a circle spiraling in towards some intuited center.

Because her arm was doing all the work, her mind felt strangely free. Her attention leaped across the room to the model, a young woman with an almost pitifully ashen complexion. As the model switched to a new pose she knelt, and then, thinking better of it, rolled onto the platform in a lying-down pose, folding and then unfolding her body. It was the motion of a leaf or a scrap of paper carried by a breeze, twisting upon itself as it settles, Carlotta thought. She could feel what the model must have been feeling: the physical relief of movement, the subtle but sensual gyration, the luxuriousness of the supine stretch. Her palpable grasp of this gestural phrase went through her own body. She held onto this understanding—as she would hold her breath—while she drew. It was as though she were reading the model's body kinetically. There was a kind of communication going on, but it was only on the page where they met. The sketch was rough, but she was capturing something, Carlotta was sure.

Dawes called a five-minute break. The model quickly retreated into a wool cape. She's so thin she looks like a starveling, Carlotta thought. Then she noticed a pair of shoes and a handbag of a very good make and decided not to worry about her. She often marveled at the odd etiquette of life class, where nudity is accepted as a matter of course. On social occasions women can hardly show their knees. Only in art is the body stripped of all fetishes and appreciated for what it is: a beautiful form. She had heard that in Germany some schools had models wear a long pink stocking so that they wouldn't have to expose their bodies to the class! She was glad there was none of that in here. At least in New York they had enough of the European tradition.

These were Carlotta's feelings in the abstract. In reality, feelings about the body were alien to her. Aside from isolated aspects that needed tending to, she didn't really know what her body looked like. She had always assumed her proportions were fairly ordinary, but the truth was that with every model she's drawn she's found at least one physical quirk that, if rendered well, made the figure immediately recognizable. She didn't even know what feature that would be with her. She had a vague sense that her figure was thought attractive: she was small, but in a round, rather than an overly fragile way. Funny, how she never asked questions of her own body as she was drawing everybody else's. It was a clinical eye she brought to figure drawing, not an exploratory one.

For the next pose, the model wrapped herself in drapery. Fabric: slow and painstaking, Carlotta thought with irritation. She put down her markers and drew the figure as though the fabric wasn't there. She found herself thinking again about the model's strange, frail body. The girl was slender and had young, unmottled skin, but there was something overwhelmingly neutral about her. Hers was a body not to be admired or touched, but to serve as a reference. The way she was standing—with the fabric clasped against her chest—she looked like an imitation of Botticelli's Venus. This thought amused Carlotta: what would the art world make of an emaciated version of this master work?

As she was working with shades, she became aware of texture. The long, flowing cotton, doubled and sometimes even tripled over, had a definite texture. But the model's skin had a strange lack of texture; it not only looked pale in color, but flat to the touch. Carlotta was saddened by this thought. What hurt or emptiness could sap the life from one's skin? Far from the empathy she felt when watching the model twist her body like a falling leaf, she felt revulsion. She could imagine what it felt like to move in that body, but not to wear its skin.

Despite this lapse in sympathy, her drawing was shaping up pretty well. She was working to deepen the darker tones, coming again and again at the paper in precise, rhythmic strokes. After each stroke her arm went back to the same spot, as if she were setting a bow. She felt incredibly omnipotent. The drawing was acting upon her as much as she was acting upon the drawing.

Trying to distinguish the tones of the fabric from the tones of the skin, Carlotta's mind wandered to the question of her own skin: what did it feel like to the touch? She was filled with an inordinate desire to be touched. She wanted Jack to touch her, not only to touch her but to study her, to memorize what her skin brought to every sense. She wanted to be touched in a way that was as devoted and knowing as the way she was drawing this stranger. She wanted to be known.

Suddenly she was overwhelmed by fear: she felt exposed. Even as she was drawing this pale woman with but a strip of cotton to cover her, Carlotta began to feel that she was the naked one. The model was wearing her shapes, her smooth, nearly geometric planes, but for Carlotta, the only clothed part was the hand that held the charcoal. She felt ashamed: ashamed of her desires, ashamed of the power she felt. She wanted to separate herself from the feelings that a few minutes before had so exhilarated her. She flipped to a new page. The paper's clean crispness comforted her. She started to draw again, but she consciously kept her imagination at a distance.

And yet she felt that she had learned something important. She couldn't quite determine exactly what it was, although she sensed it was dangerous. After class she dawdled, distractedly wondering what she wanted to do now: did she want to go straight home? Did she want to stop in a few stores, manufacturing some errand for herself? She didn't know what she wanted, but the notion of an indirect rather than a direct route to where she was going was more appealing.

She was still boxing up her things as the other students began to walk out. The model, now dressed in an overly elegant suit and swishing her expensive bag, walked past. She turned, as if there was a question she wanted to ask but decided not to.

Judith D. Schwartz, of Bennington, VT, has written a memoir about training as a psychotherapist called, The Therapist's New Clothes.