For the past three years York-based artist Andres Jaroslavsky has been working on a project entitled The Female Body Through Life which interrogates the imposed ideals of ‘female beauty’ and ‘normality.’
It’s timely. In an age of air-brushing, fat-shaming and digitally altered images, Jaroslavsky’s paintings offer both a refreshingly natural depiction of what it means to be a woman and an honest pictorial account of the effects of ageing.
The portraits are of women of a wide range of ages, shapes, sizes and nationalities, none of them professional models, all volunteers living in the York area.
Born in Argentina, Jaroslavsky has been living in York since 2000. He was a piano teacher for 20 years and taught music in secondary schools before making a change of career. A self-taught figurative painter with a special interest in portraiture and the human form, three years ago he completed an MA in Creative Practice at Leeds College of Art.
His Masters project was a series of paintings about Argentina’s last dictatorship. One of the works, Madres, a symbolic representation of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, an association of Argentine mothers whose children were ‘disappeared’ during the military dictatorship between 1976 and 1983, went on to win the Yorkshire Art Journal cover competition.
Another painting in the series, Argentina 1976, was selected for the New Lights Art Prize Exhibition at the Bowes Museum in 2015 and last year was shortlisted for the first Ibero-american Arts Award at the Brazilian embassy in London.
These paintings, while symbolic, also had a deep personal resonance as Jaroslavksy’s own father was among those who vanished without trace during that dark era in his country’s past.
For his next project Jaroslavsky was interested in exploring, in a naturalistic way, how the female body changes over time. Having been raised in a female household he is at ease in the company of women. “I grew up without a dad, my mother has four sisters and my grandmother also used to live with us, so I feel very comfortable with portraying women in my work,” he says. “I also have a daughter and I have noticed that, more and more, women are being told what their image should be.” He put a call-out on Facebook for women to come forward as volunteers and he was surprised at the response.
“Around 32 women got in touch, which was more than I needed, and I eventually selected 18,” he says. He sees his role as enabling the sitter to open up and reveal something about themselves and that means making them feel at ease. “Being naked in front of someone can be a bit daunting at first, but after a few minutes you forget about that,” he says. “It is almost like having a coffee and a chat. When I am painting a portrait I can spend two or three hours with someone at a time; guys generally talk about football and cars, with women it is so different – the conversation is much more interesting.”
He tries to do three or four sittings with each model, working around the women’s other commitments, and says it is important to him to spend time with his subjects in order to get to know them as a person. “As I am not focussing heavily on the body – the paintings are portraits of a person who is naked, not a nude – it is as much about their personality and translating that on to the canvas.”
The women he has been painting had a variety of reasons for wanting to be involved in the project. “I think for a lot of them it was a way of trying out something new, a challenge,” says Jaroslavsky. “Some of the women have had issues with their body image for a long time and they wanted to confront that.” One woman had lost nearly six stones in two years and wanted to celebrate her new body by having her portrait painted, another wanted to mark her pregnancy which had come after a sad period in her life and signified a new start.
Jaroslavsky was intrigued by the fact that while many volunteers were in the 20s and 30s, 50s, 60s and even 70s, it was difficult to find any women in their 40s. “I started to ask the women in their 50s and 60s why they thought that was,” he says. “And they said that the 40s was a terrible age, because that’s when you realise you are not 30 any more, but in your 50s you find a new confidence. I often wonder if they would have had such open dialogue with other women, but because I am not a woman, I ask those questions and they have to explain.”
Jaroslavsky has found the project fascinating and aims to complete it by September this year. Before that he will be previewing the works at York Open Studios in April, but is hoping that the series of 18 paintings can also be displayed in its entirety in a non-commercial gallery. “I would like to show them all together somewhere before I start sending them to competitions,” he says. “They work as a complete narrative.”
He has no regrets about his decision to change career and is now able to combine teaching art and music with his own projects.
“I had always been interested in painting but it was never the right time or I didn’t have the space,” he says. “But then I realised when I was forty that I just had to do it. And when I started I just couldn’t stop. There was no way back. It is a sort of obsession or compulsion. You don’t do it for pleasure; you do it because you have to do it.”
For more information on Andres Jaroslavsky’s project The Female Body Through Life or to contact the artist about hosting an exhibition visit www.jaroslavsky.com