Oil on canvas, 1869, by Jean Frederic Bazille (1841 - 1870)
I was drawn to this painting primarily because it vividly echoes one of the most iconic moments in period cinema – the bathing scene from the Merchant-Ivory adaptation of E. M. Forster’s A Room With a View, which itself functions aesthetically as a homage to the nostalgia of a bygone era. Of course this is a subjective assertion, but who can forget Julian Sands, Rupert Graves and (to a lesser extent!) Simon Callow romping naked around a secluded water hole in a picturesque forest bordering a quaint English village? Everything about the framing of that scene aims to subvert the conventional rural idyll which was Edwardian England: it was wholesomely “decent” until it was made “indecent” by the arrival and gaze of Miss Lucy Honeychurch, dressed head to toe in virginal white, who averts her eyes to corruptive male nakedness with the use of a parasol from which, naturally, she cannot help but sneak an intrigued and titillated glance. She is harbouring a secret at this point, but so are others in the scene, and so, perhaps, are we all. What starts as a benign interlude of secluded male comradeship is thus ironically tainted by late Victorian mores. Filmed through Ivory’s knowing lens, there is a charged element to the scene which betrays its simplicity: a befitting tribute then to Forster’s own conflicted sensibilities.
But film moves images whereas painting freezes them. In Bazille’s depiction, unlike Ivory’s, the sacred does not turn profane; the male figures are at ease, languid, intrepid, in perfect concord with one another’s company. They carry a limp fluidity in their decorously arranged postures: even the couple presumably play-wrestling in the distance and the bather being hauled out of the water to the lower right possess little muscular rigidity. There is something diffidently ethereal about their flaccid physiques and pastel skin-tones; “Michelangelesque” is the adjective Forster uses when describing the swimming pool scene in his novel and here it’s perfectly apt too. Also the composition calls to mind Mantegna’s work; the low horizon creates a sense of scale and vastness to the hills and dales that lie beyond which consequently ennobles the figures and invests them with a sense of Arcadian splendour.
There is, however, something disarmingly louche about the characters depicted. Something is amiss in this garden paradise. There is no real unity of purpose which coalesces around a sense of shared brotherhood or the bonds of maleness. Looking closely at the faces of the figures, each one seems not to be making eye-contact with any other but rather gazing abstractly on nothingness or else even intentionally looking away from one another. Why? Do we sense a certain weary disillusionment? Does this aversion of eyes imply the latent exhibitionist tendencies of the narcissist who only has eyes for himself? Certainly the figure leaning against the tree and the other lying across the grass present themselves in provocative neoclassical poses; they are virtual carbon-copies of one another seductively trading on the currency of their flaunted beauty and captivating eroticism. It’s also tempting to view this scene as an allegory of youth scorning age: the two outer figures on the right hand side are the only two who are clothed or partly clothed and the two who are clearly much older. Has the far figure been included or excluded from this little sojourn? Is the bearded man helping the youth out of the pool or dragging him out by force? In either case, what are his motives, what happens next? It is the ambivalence created over the exact transactional nature of such encounters, the feeling everything is alive with possibility, which keeps the observer so wryly amused.
Image courtesy of the Fogg Museum, Harvard University.