At last, summer’s here once again. And we’re all desperate to haul our hot booty out by the pool. But next time you are out there, thrashing about in the sun-kissed water and working those tan lines, spend some time soaking up not just the rays of golden sunshine upon your body, but the artistic and visual meanings that surround you. Remember David Hockney’s swimming pool paintings? Well, there is more to meet the eye than just a bare, firm butt in rippling blue water. electronic beats have decided to get all arty and explore the meanings and representations of the ‘swimming pool’ in painting, photography, video and film – from the fascination of movement and light and capturing the practice of play, through to coping with fear of death and destruction and sexual obsession. It’s time to put the lotion down, and read on.
What is the fascination with artists and their desire to interpret and consider swimming pools; the act of swimming and the human form in water in their work? At first, the concept of such a context appears simple and unequivocal. For Hockney – the most obvious ‘swimming pool’ artist – his thought processes behind his early works such as ‘Peter Getting Out Of Nick’s Pool’ and ‘Sunbather’, seem to be influenced purely by a leaning toward homoerotica. A voyeuristic stare at cute male butt in the Californian sunshine is a common, everyday scene from Hockney’s life, captured by his paintbrush – not to mention his roving eye. But homosexuality and the adoration of nice, firm bodies is not the fundamental basis behind these works – although the erotic nature is undeniable. For Hockney, the challenge for him as an artist ran a little deeper than the crack in his boyfriend’s behind. It was more about the Californian environment and its effects on shape, colour and formations – in both the water in the swimming pools and the naked bodies thrashing about in it.
As he explains in his biography ‘My Early Years’: ‘“The water in swimming pools changes its look more than any other form. The colour of a river is related to the sky it reflects, and the sea always seems to be the same colour … but the look of swimming pool water is controllable – even its colour can be man-made – and its dancing rhythms reflect not only the sky but the depth of the water as well.’ Look again at the aforementioned paintings, and you can see beyond the tight arse and notice how Hockney is clearly fascinated by the wetness of the surface; how the sunlight hits it; the depth of colour, and how the breeze changes the motion of the ripples. Perhaps Hockney was provoking the viewers’ own homoerotic thoughts rather than his own (stop blushing).
Another artist with a similar fetish for light and movement in pool water is fellow Californian Lorraine Shemesh. But for Shemesh, her focus is far more on how the body interacts with the water, and how a whole new world of moving, abstracted shapes are discovered in the water – but painted in a very realistic way. Where Hockney painted flatly – he used rollers for the bulk of the execution – Shemesh’s work sparkles in a photographic, rather than painterly, way, as one can see in ‘Amoeba’ and ‘Lasso’. You almost feel you are there with the swimmers rather than purely observing them. Hockney’s ‘A Bigger Splash’ removes the human figure completely from sight – although we know it was once there – and rather than capturing the movement of the figure in water, Hockney has captured the impact – the aftermath – of when the two collide. ‘I loved the idea of painting this thing that lasts for two seconds. Everybody knows a splash can’t be frozen in time. The painting took much longer to make than the splash existed for, so it has a very different effect on the viewer.’
FROM FEAR TO ETERNITY
Water – in pools, rivers, the sea – is not just associated with long hot summer days floating about in rubber rings, eyeing up the local talent and putting in one’s daily lengths. Water can be a lethal substance – shrouding in a playful innocence – with a stringent power and overwhelming uncontrolled nature that can cause death. That rush of adrenaline when you find yourself out of your depth; that mix of excitement and horror when you first learn to swim without arm bands; being unexpectedly driven underwater by a strong current or by an annoying jerk who’s dive bombed on top of you. Water possesses a pleasure-pain dynamic that can be irresistible.
Leonardo da Vinci – a key influence on Hockney – was fascinated by water. His drawings of water were inspired by his fear of it, or rather his fear of floods – he witnessed the Arno river banks in Florence burst in 1466. ‘Water is sometimes sharp and sometimes strong, sometimes acid and sometimes bitter, sometimes sweet. It’s seen bringing hurt or pestilence, sometimes health-giving, sometimes poisonous … it alters with the nature of the place, becoming noisome, laxative, astringent, salty, mournful, raging, angry, red, yellow, green, black, blue, greasy, fat or slim. Sometimes it hollows out or builds up, fills or empties, raises itself or burrows down, speeds or is still; is the cause at times of life or death.’
American video artist Bill Viola has also embraced and explored the themes of water in his work. In the ‘Five Angels For The Millennium’ and earlier work ‘The Reflecting Pool’, Viola’s stunning use of colour, movement and impact creates striking emotive-driven images – creating a contemporary interpretation of Hockney’s ‘A Bigger Splash’, but one laden with darker overtones. Viola’s relationship with his subject matter is far from the jovial pool-side frolics on a humid summer’s day – his video images swirl around the notion of drowning, accentuating the powerful yet fragile connection between water and life – primarily the end of it. Viola nearly drowned as a child, so these themes come as no surprise. For Leonardo and Viola, embracing their fear and fascination of death by water and interpreting and processing these emotions through their art means only one thing: control.
I WANT YOUR SEX
Hockney’s adoration of the male form in his swimming pool paintings is clear. Regardless of the other aspects involved – the light, the movement in the water – Hockney got hard by looking at naked boys in the pool – therefore he depicted them in his art. The act of voyeurism in the context of ‘art’ is of course nothing new, especially when it revolves around the act of bathing – female nudity has long been a focal point for the (predominantly) male gaze, and the one place you will be guaranteed to see birds with their kit off – or almost off – is near water. 19th Century French artists were forever visiting this theme – Cézanne’s ‘Grandes Baignueses’, Ingres’ ‘Turkish Bath’, Gerome’s ‘Femme Nue’ – all were celebrating the beauty of the female form relaxing and enjoying the act of communal bathing. But it is Ingres’ ‘Turkish Bath’ that is the most vehemently fuelled by fantasy and arousal.
The framing of the image alone is a peep hole – the reclining naked women (of which there are many, and to be frank – all looking a bit lesbo) are being spied upon by a stranger’s eye. The artist is enticing you, the viewer, to share a snapshot of his burning fantasy. Fast forward to the 1980s, and nothing much has changed – just the medium. Classic teen flick ‘Fast Times at Ridgemont High’ – featuring starlets Sean Penn and Jennifer Jason Leigh – brings the fantasy of the bathing female form up-to-date. Ingres’ peep hole is replaced with a soft focus camera lens for the classic scene where Brad (Judge Reinhold) knocks one out in the bathroom overlooking the family swimming pool whilst lost in a fantasy about his sister’s pal Linda (Phoebe Cates), who emerges from the pool in a red bikini.
In slow motion – maintaining eye contact with the camera – she removes her bikini top and exposes her breasts. One can almost feel Ingres’ blushing from the grave. And then there is French ‘’60s flick ‘La Piscine’ and its 2003 remake ‘The Swimming Pool’, which embraces Hitchcockian drama involving two couples set to a contemporary sun-drenched backdrop. This Cannes-award-winning movie boasts the classic whodunit storyline staged around a – yep, you guessed it – swimming pool in the Provence, that provides two key narrative strands – sex and murder.
Away from all the sexually-charged, complex issues rippling through those murky blue waters, the one aspect we have yet to address, is ‘fun’. For the most part, when we think of the ‘swimming pool’, we associate it with our own early childhood memories of splashing about in arm bands, and later, when we become adults, the swimming pool becomes a chamber filled with the special moments we share with our own children (with, one suspects, a bit of tomfoolery in-between). British painter Leon Kossoff took his son to the local pool in Willesden, North London, every week in the late ’60s – where he taught him to swim – and by doing so inspired a whole new series of paintings. ‘Children’s Swimming Pool, Autumn Afternoon’ was the result of Kossoff’s new found routine.
Overexcited screeches and splashes flood off the canvas, the chaos of the family visit to the local pool having been expertly captured by this doting father. As Hockney and Shemesh were challenged by movement and light, Kossoff inhaled the hectic atmosphere of this family past-time and the precious time with his child and regurgitated it through his paintbrush. The result speaks for itself. But then there’s also the calm during the storm. Scottish photographer Claire Wheeldon created the prize-winning ‘Swimming Pool’ – a stunning static image of young teenagers in a swimming pool, shot as part of a series entitled ‘Childhood Institutions’. But unlike the unruly carefree thrashing about captured in Kossoff’s work, Wheeldon has created a far more melancholy scene, the children are like statues, lost in remote thought – a reflective moment frozen in time.
But where Kossoff was depicting what was happening within the realms of the swimming pool, Wheeldon was exploring the meanings of what was happening outside of them – in Wheeldon’s case, within the confines of a school. ‘I am interested in this idea of institutionalism, particularly when involving young minds, and the idea of uniforms and repetition,’ she explains. ‘The main idea behind this print was to have the children standing motionless in the water, when what we originally imagine, when thinking of a swimming class, is to see the kids splashing and laughing. The children appear bored and lost in thought – a million miles away from learning to swim, or training for a long distance badge.’ If you look closely at the print, you can see a double hooked pole hung on the wall behind, which Wheeldon believes ’could be ready to either rescue or drag a body from the water.’
Text: Lulu le Vay