ON FLOATING BODIES
[Buoyancy] . . . If a solid is lighter than a fluid in which it is immersed, the solid will be driven upwards by a force equal to the di erence between its weight and the weight of the fluid displaced. 1
–Proposition 6, Archimedian Principle of Hydrostatics
A robust pink sand makes up three-quarters of the canvas of Kathy Bradford’s Green Suit, Pink Sand, 2018. A sienna-brown languid figure, most likely male, wears bathing shorts and lounges un- der an orange sun. The sky is black, but not ex- actly overcast; it’s as if the sun were so hot that it had scorched it. Compare Bradford’s (presum- ably) seaside visitor with Jonathan Weinberg’s Montreal Bath, 2004, where we find a sleepy young man slumped and partially submerged in water. We begin to ask ourselves: What is a bather, re- ally? In the ancient world, we find descriptions of bathers alone in the woods, at times sleeping alongside streams; we see them depicted on ter- ra-cotta vases; we note architectural descriptions of the ancient bathhouses and, from the likes of Vitruvius, accounts of elaborate pathways con- necting the heating and cooling baths for women and men. What unites these manifestations of the bath in art and literature seems to be a play between buoyancy and displacement, between lounging and being submerged. The most ap- posite description of the bath we find in science: Archimedes’s third century BCE Greek-language treatise on hydrostatics, titled On Floating Bodies. For perhaps that is the key to understanding the
bath, its promise of submergence, of floating, of a displacement of water and of reemergence.
Because the bath as a subject is strongly as- sociated with this ancient classical world, with each revival of classicism, continuing into the nineteenth century, we see painters and sculptors continue to address it. Even the painters of mod- ern life were not immune to the promise inher- ent in the bathing theme. From the ruddy and awkward bathers of Pierre-Auguste Renoir to the large ones of Paul Cézanne, from Mary Cassatt’s intimate scenes to Picasso’s rotund women, from Sean Scully’s striped abstractions to Carroll Dun- ham’s majestic women, bathers have persisted as a theme for centuries. Kate Lipton’s etchings, 2015, make obvious the long history of the social space of the bathhouse. Her prints, though di - cult to temporally pinpoint, make clear allusions to the ancient world with their use of classical Greek tropes. The three di erent bathing pools, the attendants transporting water or rubbing nude figures, even the frieze-like addendum at the bottom of one print of an array of presum- ably terra-cotta vessels: All place these images in the context of ancient bathing practice. How are we to distinguish the bathers of today from those of prior years?
Perhaps, first, we may look to the bodies them- selves. Kate Gottgens, In Rainbows, 2018, features a figure standing against a teal background in a rainbow-striped bathing suit. The oil-on-canvas painting is done in three to four predominant col- ors. The figure’s skin and the background are tan but they are highlighted by the same bluish tint. There is a slather of olive green on the grass. The
remaining and most alluring highlights happen in the light pink, where we see pink bodies matching a pink sky. The person’s stance, with splayed legs, is sexually suggestive, like so many depictions of bathers on land. Look also to Roberto Juarez’s photocollage, 2004, for an example of a male figure with his legs spread, wearing glasses and peering into the distance. Even when partially clothed, the bather is activated as a sexual object, meant for titillation and to be observed.
In the Gottgens, we see a visor akin to the diving mask and breathing tube in Ana Medina’s Snorkel, 2014, which shows a young boy with his face underwater using a snorkel in the bath. It is these figures’ accoutrements that cue us into their contemporaneity. Medina’s painting is done in a far more representational manner than the Gottgens. This includes its depiction of water itself, even though in the bathtub it is dappled, refracting light from above. We are also made privy in the Medina as well as in the Weinberg to the displacement of water; we can see where the fluid wraps the body. Also, where it distorts how we perceive that body’s limbs. The Medina and Weinberg continue traditions of a partially submerged bather that we see in paintings such as Pierre Bonnard’s 1925 The Bath.
But as we have already seen, bathing pic- tures are not simply ones set in a bath. Because the purpose of bathing, since the ancient period, was not always to cleanse the body, its depiction also encompasses the swimmer. There is a way in which the bather is also an idealization of youth. Look no further than Thomas Eakins’s Swimming Hole, 1884 – 85, which shows us nude young men
atop a promontory surveying the water before jumping in, before plunging. Similarly, Brian Shure’s spit-bite aquatint Boulders Beach, 2014, shows a nude young man— slender, graceful, and in a feminine body—looking out on the ocean. It is a diptych, in whose left panel we can make out two figures in the water and whose right panel is very abstract. We can only understand the scene on the right as representational in relation to the print at left. Otherwise, it dissolves into a study in gray monochrome. Within the context of the swimmers on the left, however, we notice a black splotch on the right, which is most likely a swim- mer beneath the waves. The disappeared figure reminds me of a Dorothy Wordsworth poem about floating islands, “a slip of earth,” but could just as easily be about a floating body:
Once did I see a slip of earth,
By throbbing waves long undermined,
Loosed from its hold;—how no one knew
But all might see it float, obedient to the wind.2
For that is the incomparable feeling of being in water, a weightlessness achievable nowhere else in the accessible natural world, to be “loosed from the hold” and carried by water and by wind.
- Archimedes, The Works of Archimedes, (Cambridge: Cam- bridge University Press, 1897) 257.
- Dorothy Wordsworth, “Floating Island.”