Life modelling is one of those jobs that blurs the distinction between the personal and the professional. Tom Lubbock observes the delicate drama played out between model and artist
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"'MONSIEUR DEGAS, do you remember the first time I visited you? Louise had brought me here so that you could tell me if I looked good enough to pose as a model?'

'Yes indeed, I remember that I was the first to see you naked. But it didn't all happen easily. You didn't want to take off your shift; Louise had to tear it off you. You looked so chaste; it was charming.'

'Just think! Taking all your clothes off in front of a man!'

'Is an artist a man?' replied Degas, shrugging his shoulders." Or so one of Degas' models, Pauline (not her real name), remembered it.

There's something never quite right, or quite resolved, about life-modelling. The questions are obvious. Is it sexual? Is it definitely not sexual? Is it about power? Is it just a job? And if it is, isn't it one of those jobs that utterly blurs the personal and the professional - a job like, for example, prostitution? Or acting? Is it really not just a tiny bit sexual?

Degas sounds like he wanted it both ways, glinting at the woman's charming chasteness, then coming on chaste himself. But "Pauline" sounds like she was coming on a little too. Of course one-to-one modelling is a different thing from modelling to a group - it has its own embarrassments to be negotiated. But group activity is not necessarily more innocent.

It clearly resembles some sort of theatre, and you have to take precautions to stop a life class becoming too much like a live show. There's the custom, for instance, by which the model gets undressed out of view - disappears behind a screen and then re-appears, naked or in a robe, to work. This isn't just for modesty's sake. It effects a change of role, of distance: the model reappears as The Model. (But I have seen models who stripped off in the middle of the room.)

And there are those slightly awkward points of etiquette. In a break between poses, say, when the model is resting, not being a model, but still naked: is it impertinent to go up for a chat, or is it unfriendly not to? You don't want to be standoffish. But you don't want to seem like that gentleman of middle years who - under cover of "aesthetic distance" - always sits bang at the front, and doesn't appear to have much interest in improving his nonexistent drawing skills.

It's no good getting too normal about it. One naked person in a room full of clothed people is a situation. Once, at a life-class, someone I had long been desiring from afar turned up as the model: confusion. Another time, not paying attention while the model arrived and sat, I drew the first pose (a back view) without being able to tell whether the model was a young man or a young woman: curious. And then, you might always meet later at a party.

As for distance, it can go in two directions. They call the model's dais "the throne". The model commands all eyes, takes centre stage, is the subject of every- one's picture - but at the same time a mere object for observation, a puppet to be commanded and arranged, snapped into two-minute poses or fixed in hours-long stands.

There's a painting by Johann Zoffany, from 1772, showing the life-room from the early days of the Royal Academy. The Academicians stand around in wigs and breeches and self-important attitudes. But, though nobody is drawing, the focus of all their attention, their pleasure, you might almost say their reverence, is a naked man, seated.

A man, note. It wasn't until the 19th century that a life model would be typified as female. It's a man - an anonymous man, who with his clothes on was maybe a soldier or a boxer, not remotely the social equal of the artistic gents who surround him, employed as a bit of prime livestock really - but who, with his clothes off, in this setting, stands as a specimen of the ideal human form to which they are all devoted.

Not the only specimen. The reason we say "life" in this context derives from the divisions of traditional art education. Life, working from living models, was normally the last stage of the process. It was not to be attempted until the student had first learnt the lessons of non-living models, corpse anatomy and classical statuary. And look, one of the academicians is slipping a noose round the model's wrist, to help hold his arm up in some statuesque attitude, turning body back into sculpture - which is what any life model has to do.

Or a grimmer analogy may be apter - not just an analogy either. Among the various Greco-Roman poses which made up the repertoire of the traditional life-room, Christianity's one big contribution was the Crucifixion. It's very weird to see pictures of such scenes: groups of students, bent at their easels, and in front of them their model, a man on a cross.

The practice seems to have survived, at least in an attenuated form. In The Naked Civil Servant, Quentin Crisp recalls his first evening's modelling, a four-hour session at Toynbee Hall: "I was eager but a little apprehensive lest I should faint as I had often seen models do. As I stepped onto the 'throne', the master said, 'I suppose you couldn't hold on to the top of that screen behind you in a kind of crucifixion pose?' I pointed out that I had died after three hours last time."

And the life class, for the model, crucified or not, can easily become a death class - dead arms, dead legs, dead bored, dead cold.

But the life class itself isn't quite dead. In fact you find a variety. At the strictest, there's the Slade School's F Studio, where the painter Euan Uglow teaches. Here models are set in poses of rigid constancy, and transferred to the students' paper or canvas with a rigid methodology, each feature of their body marked and measured with ruler and plumb-line. The body fixed, the eye transfixed, an absolute distance between them.

But there are life classes I've heard of that go to opposite extremes, that encourage full identification between the artists' and the models' bodies, and practise a ritualised all-round physical empathy - where model and student move together, where pictures are worked on by more than one person, where painting is done with the whole body, not just by hand but by toe and mouth. I've heard of life classes where the class is naked too.

And all these approaches, perhaps, are attempts to resolve - one way or another - the inherent tensions of this strange institution. David Storey's play Life Class imagines the tensions exploding. The drama culminates in the mock rape of the model by one of the students, half-encouraged by the disillusioned tutor, glad by that stage to see any breakdown of the artificial conventions of the life-room.

But normally the tensions and the conventions a re perfectly stable. The scene may look like drama, but everyone has their job to do. Posing and drawing are both hard work, both an exercise of skill. You don't need trouble from either side. I did hear of a male life model once who, mid-pose, got a spontaneous erection; the class had him sacked.

'The Artist's Model', an historic exhibition of photographs and paintings is at Kenwood House, Hampstead Heath, London NW3, until 26 September. Then at Djanogly Art Gallery, University of Nottingham, 16 October to 12 December