There is, of course, a less-than-progressive aspect to all this. Though the modern artists’ take on the bather was partially concerned with the making of the image itself, their efforts take on a new weight when seen from a feminist perspective. While there are some notable male bathing scenes (Picasso’s Les Baigneurs, 1921–22, springs to mind), the subjects of these paintings are overwhelmingly female. Understood in this light, even the most timeless of these images can be read as exercises in objectifying their subjects, reducing them to characters playing the role of sexualized props. Many of these works, you could argue, make voyeurs of both the artist, and—more worryingly—of the viewer, too.
What the goddess Diana would have made of Picasso, Gauguin, or Matisse intruding on her privacy, we can only imagine. For his part, Chan looks at the supposedly voyeuristic qualities of the bathing figure from a nuanced position. From his point of view, there is something pleasurable and celebratory about the trope—and in what can only be described as a troubling moment in world history, straightforward pleasure and celebration are things we cannot be allowed to dismiss as frivolous. “I wanted to enter the tradition of the bather,” he said, simply. “It’s a theme that encompasses sexuality, the human body, what attracts us, and changing attitudes towards that.” The visual tradition as Chan sees it also prompts some truly existential concerns. “There are real questions here: what it is to be human; what our relationship to nature is—if, that is, nature can be said to exist anymore,” he said. But there is hope here, too: “Perhaps by reinvigorating certain themes, we can, in fact, reinvigorate ourselves.”