Back in 1995 I visited an exhibition of the late period Degas in the National Gallery of London. Among the works, were many with naked distorted female bodies bathing, drying themselves, combing their hair. At first it looked like the result of compulsive voyeurism of the aging artist. After having a second look, my view changed. these were not simple paintings. They were odes to the female body, poems without verses, songs without sound. The Degas pictures were wonderful sonatas, chamber music to introduce me to the complex world of painting the flesh.
The gigantic canvases where Cezanne depicted his bathers, came next in my journey of discovery of paintings depicting the body and the flesh. After the Degas chamber music, the time came for the symphony. Degas dresses his pictures with warmth and caress. The Cezanne bathers are bronze-like, and almost clumsy. These figures are not feminine in the sense that Degas’s are. In a sense they are naked Amazones, ready to fight. Some have called Cezanne’s bathers a reflection of his misoginy.
Any reference to Cezanne’s Bathers would be incomplete without the “Three Bathers”, which is the ultimate statement made by Cezanne regarding the female body and the flesh. A statement that expresses his complete lack of appreciation of the female body, in the sense that one cannot see even a fragment of passion in the endless surfaces of female flesh he put on the canvas.
The three figures are seen in a night scene, bathed in the moonlight, neglecting any bystander, focusing on their leisure and relaxation. Again there is no sign of femininity, nor of sexual appeal. The solid figures have nothing to do with the academic ideal, they are closer to ordinary working women, seen from a distance, as animals grazing the zoo’s grass.
Matisse loved women. His “Three bathers and a turtle” display his passion and love for the female body. It is like a hymn to the woman, prior to his painting the “Joy of life”.
The joy of life of radiant Mediterranean colours gives its place to the introspection of Central Europe and the tension of Expressionism.
The contours of the body are shores containing the waves of passion and desire.
The European North in the face of Munch makes the body a continent of rivers, lakes, mountains.
Lucian Freud, the grand child of Sigmund, brings the earth on the body, makes it a fertile field.
Francis Bacon makes the body a field of horrors. Deformation, dicease, decasy, and ultimately Death inhabit the canvas.
Jenny Saville paints herself and her sister as twins, and the canvas erupts with color gradations.
Saville’s self portrait is a scream. Her flesh melts like ice cream, it floats on dirty air.
David Hockney’s Teressa is a collage that invites us to rethink the space and the body.
It is time for the spirit and the bodies of the women already depicted to exit the scene. No other than Marel Duchamp is directing their grand exit down the stairs.