Naked truths and the art of anatomy

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 07 April, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 07 April, 2009, 12:00am

It was a regular art lesson - or at least the teacher and the students attending the class thought so - but out of the blue this small visual art class of 18 Form Four students at Diocesan Boys' School found themselves at the centre of a debate among parents and educationalists last month.

The controversy arose after one student allegedly complained to a reporter that he felt embarrassed about the presence of a nude female model at the class.

The art teacher justified the presence of the model, saying the school had conducted nude painting classes for its students for 10 years, and that it was not the first lesson of the semester.

However, some educationalists said that it was inappropriate to confront 16-year-old boys with nude female models, on the grounds that they might not be mature enough.

Others wondered whether it was necessary for Form Four art students to be learning advanced artistic techniques such as nude painting - wouldn't drawing an apple or a fully-clad model be good enough?

Although the media coverage died down after just a few days, the issue of whether nude art should be taught in secondary schools remains unresolved. Is there an appropriate age for students to study the nude, or - because of the sensitivity of the topic - should it be scrapped completely from art education and be substituted with something else?

Roy Munday, an artist and art teacher from Liverpool, Britain, who has painted nudes for more than 15 years, says nudes, or life painting, is important training for budding artists.

'Nude painting is very disciplined and it's an accurate way to learn the basic skills of drawing and human anatomy. If you draw a landscape, there is no way [for someone] to know if you have got it right or wrong. But if you draw a nude human body, people recognise it immediately if the proportions are not correct. It really forces you to observe and concentrate,' says Munday.

'There are six art colleges in UK working with life models. All students are at least 16 or older. I'm not sure if there is any regulation regarding the age limit, but I would say 16 is the critical age. The students taking the classes are usually hoping to get into university and study fashion design or painting.'

Munday says many of his students felt embarrassed in their first class regardless of their age. 'Some of my students in their 70s are more embarrassed than the 16-year-olds.

'But the embarrassment doesn't last long and soon they see it as natural thing. Once they get over the initial shock, they quickly realise that [sex] is not an issue.'

The great Renaissance painter, Leonardo da Vinci, started his apprenticeship with Andrea del Verrocchio at the age of 14. One of the first parts of his formal training was learning to draw the anatomy of the human body. Unfortunately, if Leonardo were born in Hong Kong today, he might find his talents squandered in the face of public disapproval.