Vanessa Bell’s Bathers

by charlestonattic

Pierre Bonnard’s bathers – the plural is perhaps misleading, for most of his soaking or somnolent nudes were his obliging wife Marthe – lean, lie, or wilt within their enclosed, mistily realised domestic interiors, but rarely do they rise – inelegant, immodest, uneroticised – in the manner of this recently discovered Vanessa Bell nude.

bathing scene

CHA/P/2439. Vanessa Bell. Bathing Scene. Recto. 49cm x 41cm. Photograph © The Charleston Trust.

The wide lilac trimmed bathtub – notably not the narrow, murky green of the tub at Charleston – provides a backdrop for Bell’s awkwardly limbed emerging nude. One arm clutches her side, the other – and our eyes follows her downcast face in its direction – is angled for leverage of her knee. Attentive to the body’s mechanics, Bell is equally sensitive to how the body is experienced in a particular mood, how emotions are embodied. Dappled in unfleshly greens and aquamarine, her ratios radically mismatched (no accident of perspective could generate such an attenuated upper arm, so large a foot) Bell here cedes the figurative to feeling. Size is consistent with effort, suggestive of and responsive to the sensation of weight. The unusual sheens of her skin could, in turn, allude to the estrangement from one’s body elicited by these private rituals. One must temporarily regard one’s body as an object, a vessel – and a fragile one, at that – requiring cleaning, care, and attention.

Anatomy, for Bell, is a means of expression, not an opportunity to strive for representational accuracy; the bather’s surroundings are likewise impressionistic, unconcerned with strict verisimilitude. A hazy geometry of burnt orange, white and periwinkle blue suggest a curtain withdrawn to a pane of glass: rays of sunlight thin to a milky iridescence; pear-shaped daubs of paint smudge into the suggestion of steam. A fastidiously detailed toilette – the mirrors, brushes, and towels littering many of Bonnard’s scenes, not to mention the similar set-pieces of Edgar Degas – is set aside. A sense of privacy trespassed, of intimacy easily if unwillingly ceded – of an omnipotent, virile beholder, in short – lent the conventional bathing scene a fair amount of its appeal. Yet prying becomes almost an impossibility here, as nothing in Bell’s interior is especially familiar; all is avowedly and self-reflexively painted. Abandoning the more prurient forces underpinning the genre, then, Bell’s is a study rather of colour reduced to its optical minutiae, of paint responsive to divergent and shifting materialities.

The Bath 1925 by Pierre Bonnard 1867-1947

Pierre Bonnard, The Bath, 1925. oil on canvas. 86cm x 120.5cm. Photograph © Tate

Bathing scenes had long held a complicated erotic appeal: voyeuristic pleasures aside, these images served to both amplify and assuage anxieties over the cleanliness (or indeed the essential, irrevocable dirtiness) of the female body. Bonnard’s bathing scenes are often praised for their depictions of marital intimacy, nevertheless they remain – however gentle or loving his gaze – reiterations of masculine agency and feminine passivity so prevalent in the Western European art historical canon. Bonnard’s 1925 painting of his wife is typical, imagining her submerged to her chin, swamped by white porcelain, the lifeless nymph of his homely arcadia. Here a shimmering jaundiced blue, Bonnard’s later “Nude in the Bath” (1940) fully dissolves the female body into the bathwater. Tired tropes associating women with the elemental, fluid, and uncontrollable are deployed without compunction; for there are ways of concealing ideology by making claims about perception. Faux-naive in consistency and colour, the circular floor tiling and cross-hatched panelling allude to the visual vocabulary of Post-Impressionism; the bather’s porous and permeable body is, in this light, merely a formal consideration, an expression of fleeting tonal relations, nothing more.

pb bath 2

Pierre Bonnard, Nu Dans La Baignoire, 1940. watercolour, gouache and pencil on paper. 28cm x 32.1cm. Photograph © Christie’s.

Bell’s appropriation of the traditional scene is not without its own quiet, queer eroticism, but seems more keenly responsive to the subjectivity of the bather, and certainly less willing to essentialise in the name of aesthetics. Her gestures radiate a vulnerability – the hand on hip feels protective, and is disproportionately sized as if to bolster or shield – but are balanced against something more defiant, wilful. Note the hunched shoulder, the elbow aslant, the legs splayed. Held aloft and glossed by a sheen of white, the foot reaches beyond the bathwater and – toes touching the scribbled, unfinished outer edge of the tub – the picture plane itself. The bather is at once delicate and robust, sensual but self-commanding, with Bell’s eye trained less to the body’s allure, and more to its tension and mass, its muscle and movement.

Of course, this canvas was not Bell’s sole foray into bathing scenes, and more than likely represents a later work – the absence of dating entails a certain embrace of obscurity – to her 1917 masterpiece “The Tub”.  Originally intended for the Garden Room at Charleston (but never hung) this strikingly large work depicts a woman undressed, playing absently with her plaited hair, her bath skewed to face the viewer, agape like an astonished mouth. Generic similarities are accentuated by the broadly anti-illusionistic style the works share, most noticeable in their spare, vibrantly hued environments. Even the bathers are encountered as echoes. Neither preen nor perform for the painter; both look away, without vanity or shame, their thoughts elsewhere. Yet a uniquely acute sense of unease pervades “The Tub”: every element – from the drooping floral arrangement to the deep purple pillar – is tersely separate, static.

The Tub 1917 by Vanessa Bell 1879-1961

Vanessa Bell, The Tub, 1917. oil (?) and gouache on canvas. 167cm ×108.3cm. Photograph © Tate.

Frances Spalding has read the painting as charged with the emotional turmoil of Bell’s complex early life at Charleston, the three wilting flowers an allusion to the painful, ongoing ménage-a-trois between Bell, Grant and Garnett. However tempting, such biographical readings belie Bell’s awareness of the canon, and her especially fraught relationship with its androcentric history. “The Tub” could thus be better understood as invoking the bathing scene only to admit a profound discomfort, to concede the paralysis and emotional aridity of a genre so freighted with epistemic violence. By the time of her later painting, one can only assume Bell felt the hostile genre had been neutralised, reconciled, and able, finally, to capture an animated, agential vision of female subjectivity.