Welcome back ladies and gentlemen.
It’s been a long while since I last posted. What began in December 2017 as the Museum of Swimming was meant to be a more frequent affair- perhaps mirroring the regularity at which I find myself in the H2O. Alas, life happens. In the many months since the first post, I have visited my family in the US, swam at the newly opened Thames Lido in Reading, which I promise to write about, and had a baby (artfully swimming long-course the day my waters broke, no pun intended). So, the summer season is in full swing and I confess because I have a three-month old baby, unsurprisingly, getting to the lake to swim is a challenge and I can count the events I’ve entered on one finger (Swim Serpentine)! My kindred swimming buddy kindly helped me pack the kids in the car a few weeks ago so that we could swap swimming and looking after the brood on a hot evening at the ever-changing Liquid Leisure in Datchet. It was bliss. In the absence of frequent open water swimming and in the spirit of the heat wave we have been having in the UK I offer a reflection on Seurat’s Bathers.
I have chosen Seurat’s Bathers, one, because right now I fancy taking a dip in those cool river Seine waters, and two, because this time last year I was preparing a family art workshop for the National Gallery, from which I took inspiration from one of my favourites, Georges Seurat’s very large painting from 1884, Bathers at Asnières. The Sunday drawing workshop was situated in front of the larger-than-a-hot-tub painting itself, affording direct visual and verbal dialogue with the painting. Likewise, looking at real paintings in the gallery space with the buzz of other visitors is crucial to the interaction, and situating family learning in the gallery spaces showcases that the gallery is for families, for everyone.
[Coincidentally, this painting inspired a #drawwithus afternoon at St James Park as part of a campaign that my fellow educators have organised to support their class action case against unfair dismissal from the National Gallery. I encourage you to support their courageous cause. Connect with them on Twitter and Instagram at @StandWithNG27, or on their Facebook page (search ‘Stand With NG 27’). Learn more at https://www.crowdjustice.com/case/nationalgalleryeducators/%5D
We started this Drawing Sunday workshop by exploring and talking about the painting together, using it as a launchpad to discuss our own experiences and thoughts interspersed with history titbits. Testimony from Seurat’s peer group suggested that he was CRAZY about drawing, so we drew too. We used conte crayons for our drawing activity, the same sorts of crayons made of graphite, clay and wax that Seurat used to make his preparatory drawings, and on paper similar to the textured Michellet paper he used. We focused on individual objects like the hats, boats (how many can you spot?) and the dog, which was very popular. Likewise, we looked for shapes like triangles, curves and circles, squares. We had a few batman contributions as well. Using our drawings we then made a collaborative reconstruction of the painting, took a photograph of the arrangement and printed out a photo for each child.
So what does this have to do with swimming, you’re wondering? Well, first of all, what kind of swimming are the figures in the painting doing? Can you spot any of the four competitive strokes? I don’t see any, though I had one child suggest that the figure whose back is to the viewer may be doing breaststroke, which is a possibility. From what I gather, breaststroke was the predominating stroke of the time, besides backstroke and then the Trudgen Crawl. But if you look at the figures’ bodies, they are frozen in place like stone statues of a Medusa glare, fixed into position, moving less than the suggested breeze told by the blades of grass, not making a splash, and not even horizontal in the water.
There is not actually much swimming happening in this painting at all. Several children suggested the figures were ‘having a paddle’, a British term that means having a splash about or wading. As a part-time swimming instructor, I encounter this term quite a lot, but always found it an odd term. ‘Paddling’ in my US English meant something you do in a canoe, or an action you make with your hands and arms in swimming. I was to discover contextually that a ‘paddling pool’ in the UK is the US version of a ‘wading pool,’ (in the spirit of the painting, une pataugeoire in French), like the British ‘sand pit’ is to the American ‘sand box’ (or ‘litter box’ as my cats would call it). So indeed, Seurat’s figures are ‘having a paddle’ and cooling down on warm summer’s day in a spot also used to water horses.
Seurat is typically characterised as a Post-Impressionist, recruiting subjects like leisure, capturing the effects of light, taking advantage of newly manufactured brushes to create a range of strokes and dabs and dashes, and using colour as a means of expression. Probably best known for Pointilism, which emerged several years after Bathers at Asnières was completed (he did experiment in a couple areas of the painting after it was actually finished, see the boy’s orange hat), Seurat’s approach to combining and applying colours led to the colourful, Ben Day-like dots that our mind fuses to create and read specific colour categories, using the principle of juxtaposing complementary colours to amplify impact.
He was however a very academic painter, planning his compositions and using life models to produce a body of preparatory drawings and creating painterly sketches produced ‘en plein air’ as dazzling as the finished work. Seurat had this monumental canvas custom-made, a size usually reserved for canonical history painting. It would have been near impossible to paint on location because of the size of the six square meters canvas. The painting and many of the preparatory figure drawings were executed in Seurat’s studio. You can even see an easel in the background of the ‘breast stroking’ model.
For this painting Seurat takes inspiration from the extracurricular activities of the working class, clerical urban dwellers and bourgeois pleasure seekers (see the chauffeured row boat with the top hat, parasol and the tricolour French flag). Likewise, he has created an image of solitude populated by internally distant swimmers and sunbathers. Was Seurat a swimmer? I do not know, but perhaps he knew a little about the independent pursuit of swimming. No one talks to each other, but it is a shared moment, like looking at a painting in a gallery. Or the silent pursuit of lane swimming, which despite the isolation and repetition of our own lengths, we share the love and freedom of the water.
At the end of the nineteenth century swimming and water sports became more popular and accessible as folks had more leisure time and train transport away from city centres was more readily available. Likewise, the institutionalisation of health, hygiene and sanitation during fin-de-siècle France brought greater visibility and credence to aquatic pursuits. Seaside resorts popped up and were filled with holiday makers seeking the long-associated health benefits of water- or at least being close to it. Additionally, the first municipal pools were opened.
Most importantly, this painting prompts a whole load of questions about picturing swimming in the Nineteenth Century I’d like to learn more about. What was swimming in the Seine like before it was outlawed in 1923 and then revived in the 21st Century? Did folks race or try to beat their personal bests? What did nineteenth century breaststroke look like and could I try find some film footage, like in the Moscow film I saw at Pompidou the other day (more on later)? I want to know more about this historical culture of swimming. As I find out more I will share it with you.
For further art historical reading on Seurat’s Bathers see: Seurat and The Bathers. John Leighton, Richard Thompson, et al. National Gallery Publications Limited. London, 1997.