How To Look At Art

Or: There's no such thing as a bad nude.

The first thing I noticed was the breasts. They were hard to miss. True, this was a Picasso—something from the Rose Period, wherein breasts still plainly resembled, well, breasts—but I was only eight years old and my appreciation of high art was somewhat lacking. And to the consternation of the teacher, the other students, and the employees of the Art Gallery of Ontario, Robbeson—resident wit—was front and centre, eager to articulate his most comprehensive, if wayward, interpretations.

The painting was called Nu aux mains serrées (Nude with Clasped Hands). It hangs at the AGO to this day. In fact, I see it every week, living, as I do, only blocks away. I don’t particularly like Picasso, ironically, and although there isn’t much in his work that appeals to me, at eight I felt differently. For then, at about eye level and for the first time, I was confronted with a realistic and life-sized depiction of the female anatomy; a comment pertaining to which I was neither willing nor capable of suppressing.

That’s when it happened, when my lifelong love affair with painting got underway; there was where my art education, proper, began. I had made my lascivious observation loudly and cleverly, certain that nary a passerby could have escaped the spell of my wit, when a worldly and precocious nine-year-old girl named Kim leaned over and scolded me sharply: “It’s art, Davey!”

Though I studied art at university for five years and have since written reams about artists both real and imagined, I can’t draw for beans. I have noticed that the pictures I tend to like usually involve some sort of female nudity.

Of the 19 paintings currently hanging in my home, there are precisely eight naked breasts (three pairs and two singles) on show. I’m partial to classical themes (Leda and the Swan is one I have) and at one point, about 10 years ago and for no real reason, I made a brief hobby of copying works by Modigliani. Modi, you might not know, was loopy for naked ladies.

My prized possession is a picture my nana, Alice, painted in 1958 while she was living in California; a nude study of a Tahitian woman, in a style reminiscent of the Polish artist Tamara de Lempicka. As cool as it is to have art as an heirloom, it’s even cooler that it was my grandmother who made it, in the style of an art deco master no less, more than 60 years ago. It was she who, on the eve of that class trip, suggested I keep an eye out for the work of ol’ Pablo P.

In Kurt Vonnegut’s excellent novel Bluebeard, the erstwhile American painter Rabo Karabekian is asked how to tell whether a painting is any good or not. His advice is simple: “All you have to do … is look at a million paintings, and then you can never be mistaken.” My own advice is in a similar spirit: find something you like to look at, and then find different examples. It could be formal portraits of dukes or papal oligarchs; battle scenes from the Bible; or yes, even naked ladies.