There have been so many nudes throughout art history, from the statues of Ancient Greece to Ingres’s memorable Odalisque and Jenny Saville’s larger-than-life paintings. Most often than not, the nudes have been of women as seen by men, making me wonder whether the beauty resides in the creation or in the object of desire – the women themselves.
I find that it gets rather boring, in time, seeing nude after nude. Beauty loses its punch once it’s present everywhere.
… which is why I love this Félix Vallotton painting so, so much, as it defies any preconceived assumption I may have had about nudes and women’s bodies, in general.
Vallotton intended The Bath. Summer Evening to be a satire of the bourgeoisie idling its days away around a modern day fountain of youth, but behind the thin veil of irony, as often is the case with comedy, we get a refreshing glimpse of truth — the female body presented in its diverse, non-idealized forms, with all its idiosyncrasies.
Notice, for starters, the unusual lack of sexual tension. These are bodies, flesh and bones, young and old alike, with saggy breasts and loose skin, unconcerned with how ridiculous they look. And why should they be concerned? They seem utterly content, splashing away at the pool on a hot summer evening. Slouched, squatting, lounging, standing, these women lack any self-consciousness or pretension, and display their bodies as purely functional instead of alluding to sexual fantasies.
Don’t get me wrong — their poses are still contrived. That is especially true for those in the foreground. The second woman from the left looks as if she’s in the grip of an existential crisis — one cannot tell whether her body is showing the front and the backside at the same time. Next to her, another woman seems to be holding a little black cat or some furry animal. You’d think she’s using it as a sponge, but her pointed finger informs us that we’re witnessing a didactic lesson — perhaps it’s a swimming class. To the right, it gets even more bizarre. One woman holds her hands up as if they were paws and she glances down at the woman next to her, who’s squatting neck-deep in very shallow water, looking rather uncomfortable.
Farther back, to the center, is my absolute favorite vignette: a brunette gingerly descends the stairs into the pool, her arms wrapped around herself in an embrace, so enraptured that she seems to be walking straight out of a meme. Now that’s self-love.
The painting is full of quirky, individualistic scenes like these which make the viewing intensely pleasurable, since it takes a long time to run out of new things to discover or question. (I, for one, still haven’t figured out why the body of the second woman on the left is so contorted)
And, once again, notice the lack of sexuality here. It’s so unusual given all the body parts exposed. In fact, the most sensual element in this painting seems to be the sinuous path crossing the meadow, pink in its fleshiness. Our ladies, on the other hand, are as pale as ghosts.
I find Vallotton’s depictions exhilarating. Sure, his intentions weren’t the most noble, considering that he wanted to poke fun at these bourgeois women. But humor ends up individualizing them to an extent that I do not see with most other nudes. It is also humor that liberates these women and gives them license to be their unapologetic selves. So let them eat cake — they’ll have the last laugh.