In Room 44 of the National Gallery, London, sitting quietly is Bathers of Asnieres, 1884, I forgot this was in the collection and it blew my socks off, like bumping into a major celebrity in the aisles of Tesco or perhaps Marks and Spencer. I was even more delighted to discover a little dog, sitting obediently by its owner in the bottom left hand side above Seurat’s signature. It is barely able to contain its excitement as the boy makes the sound of the factory whistle in his cupped hands.
In our new age we can empathise with the irrepressible nature of Seurat’s subjects as they find space to express their humanity at odds with the encroaching industrial and technical revolutions.
Bathers are a commonly re-visited theme by artists and through our social evolution over the centuries since the early renaissance depictions of privilege, this dogma has been a useful foil to record the human experience juxtaposed to a changing world. Cezanne and Renoir obviously are key to the movement towards a re-interpretation of classism and these modernist interpretations de-construct the privileged aristocrats dipping their toes into their private lakes. Modernism and post modernism share this socialistic utopia bringing everyone into the previously elitist experience and with painting the original compositions can be literally distorted and re-drawn.
Photographically we are left only with realist interpretations, some romanticised, commercialised and sexualised like Bruce Webber’s beautiful perfect boys in ‘Bear Pond on a Gold Day’ and Ryan McGinley’s carefree youth’s but other artists reflect a more overtly political perspective as in Seurat’s painting. Boris Mikhailov’s great series ‘Salt Lake, 1986’ reflects the notion of humanity finding a way to express itself under the most extreme circumstances. This is the starting point in the eventual defeat of any oppressive state, it is why any limiting dogma is so painful to endure; it is not natural.
The Bather motif is an opportunity for photographers to work with nakedness, particularly away from the commercial stereotype we have an opportunity to explore the bodies of the ordinary human beings not narcissistically sculpted to glamorise the status quo (lovely and addictive as it is) but to celebrate the oppressed and hidden beauty of everyday humanity normally hidden from view, shamed by the unachievable perfectionism that sells us Mars Bars, now brightly lit and brought back into the foreground out of the shadows.
My bathers in Ukraine are brave metaphors for the defeat of the societal introjections; they inspire me by their example but my objectivist approach also exposes a vulnerability and a sense of humanity under attack that I share with Rineke Dijkstras’s beach teenagers. Both works are inevitably infected by the power of Botticelli’s original interpretation of Venus but the Venus in my work is a boy (Image_1664).
|Image_1664, Venus as a Boy, from series Bathers © Richard Ansett 2011/IZOLYATSIA|
|Detail from Image_1664, Venus as a Boy, from series Bathers © Richard Ansett 2011/IZOLYATSIA|