Unreal Nature

April 16, 2018

Putting the Body in Its Place

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:53 am

… Nowhere can this mythology of the return of solid values be so convincingly deployed as in the case of the ambivalently approached female body.

This is from Bathers, Bodies, Beauty: The Visceral Eye by Linda Nochlin (2006):

… On the surface of it, nothing would seem less problematic than the late-nineteenth-century bather. It seems to be a natural “given” of art history; timeless, elevated, idealized, and as such central to the discourses of high art. Yet of course, it has become obvious already that the bather theme is anything but a given, the opposite of natural. On the contrary, it is a construction particular to a certain historical period, though based on and attaching itself to a long artistic tradition; and far from being natural, it is a highly artificial and self-conscious construction at that.


Adolphe-William Bouguereau, Bathers, 1884

I am now going to continue my attempt to problematize this apparently unproblematic and “natural” subject by putting the bather and bathing back into the history of social institutions, practices, and representations from which Renoir and most of the “high” artists of his time abstracted them. The point of this part of my investigation is not so much to discover anything new about Renoir’s Great Bathers but rather to consider what it has excluded: what about bathers and bathing during our “bathtime” of the late nineteenth century has the painting occluded?

[ … ]

… Ultimately, the discourses of bathing and swimming must be understood in connection with other regimes of reglementarianism — official government regulation — connected with the body and its practices, regimes brilliantly analyzed by Michel Foucault and by Alain Corbin in his studies of prostitution, smells, and garbage, as well as by Georges Vigarello in his histories of cleanliness, sports, posture, and deportment training. Bathing and its representation must be viewed as part of a more generalized politics and policy of “putting the body in its place”: a policy that had its origins during the later eighteenth century and was associated with Enlightenment ideals of control, hygiene, and civil order.

[line break added] As with the discourses of prostitution, sanitation, and wet-nursing, to which the discourses of swimming and bathing are related in that all are concerned with the body’s products, comportments, or employments, there is an evolving official government code of regulations, stipulating prohibitions, and approving practices in the realm of swimming and bathing. This official regulationism is accompanied by a stream of propaganda extolling the physical and social benefits of swimming and bathing and, at the same time, by a contradictory plethora of irreverent satire aimed at the foibles associated with water sports.

In none of this material, however, is the critique aimed at naked goddesses lolling about on the banks of classical or Edenic shores, but rather at modern women emerging from locker rooms, learning the strokes and the dives, taking showers before and after, and eyeing one another in bathing suits. Nakedness and the elevation of the nude is never an issue here, but rather the ludicrous effects of contemporary bathing costumes on less-than-perfect bodies.

[ … ]

… Of course high art had its own counter-discursive strategies during bathtime: that campaign of subversion from within which art history has always identified with Modernism itself. In both Courbet’s Bathing Women of 1853 and Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe of ten years later, the traditional elevation of the bather theme is called into question with a “shock of the new.” In both cases, although differently, a disconcerting combination of alienation and reality effect is involved.

[line break added] In the Courbet, “reality” is signified by the coarse fleshiness of the fat body and the presence of abandoned clothing; but the meaninglessness of the gesture calls into question the naturalness of the topos itself and invokes alienation. In the Manet painting, abandoned clothing as well as the presence of modern, fully dressed men signify once more, contemporaneity; but the formal language in toto refuses the natural as a possibility of representation.


Gustave Courbet, Bathing Women, 1853

… But by the 1880s and 1890s, things had changed within the avant-garde itself. It was not just Renoir who was fleeing immediacy and contemporaneity but other vanguard artists as well, most notably Gauguin, who actually left France itself in search of more timeless, universal, indeed eternal values inscribed on the bodies of naked, dark-skinned females.

… The end of Impressionism, viewed from the vantage point of gender, coincides with a (possibly unconscious) rejection of the “feminine” toward the end of the century, and a return to “solid” values on the part of a certain fraction of the avant-garde. The nude, specifically the bather, inscribed in the order of the “natural,” stands for the return of value in art itself. Nowhere can this mythology of the return of solid values be so convincingly deployed as in the case of the ambivalently approached female body.

[line break added] It is here that aesthetic goals can coincide most productively with unconscious psychosexual factors, and these unconscious impulses in turn erased, modified, or sublimated. The bathers, freed from contemporary specificity and historical narrative alike, are now understood to be the primary realm of pure aesthetic — of course, masculine aesthetic — challenge.

-Julie

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