Notes that spring from
“Sussex Modernism: Retreat and Rebellion”
Two Temple Place, London 28th January – 23rd April 2017
Duncan Grant’s “Bathers by the Pond” (1920-1) from the Pallant House Gallery collection.
Vanessa Bell moved to Charleston Farmhouse, escaping London during WW1, bringing with her the complicated friendships, family & children of the Bloomsbury Group and a visual aesthetic that continues to entrance and resonate a century on. Part of the reason for her move was so that the young men of Bloomsbury who were pacifists and conscientious objectors – including her by then lover and companion Duncan Grant – might find farm work nearby whilst also having the time to paint.
It is this context that Dr Wolf presents Grant’s painting “Bathers by the Pond”
“…the bodies of beautiful young men are open to the world and gleaming in the sun” (catalogue, p.21)
The man in the foreground is astonishing; his beauty is in the curvaceous line that flows from his foot through to his elbows and loops back around to sculpt the body of rich golden colour tones.
It exemplifies the Bloomsbury style and aesthetic: line and colour are sculptural and decorative. Both Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell were able to paint bodies that were vital, vibrant with rhythm – here is Bell’s “Nude with Poppies” (1916; Swindon Museum; image c/o ArtUk).
Ducan Grant’s painting of bathers echoes Georges Seurat’s “Bathers at Asnieres” (1884; National Gallery, London) – from the concept of the scene to the pointillism of grass and water. And note the little dog in each.
But so much had changed since 1884.
Men had been made into machines (CRW Nevinson: La Mitrailleuse [1915; Tate]).
The Great War had killed, maimed and destroyed millions of young men’s bodies across Europe; a tragedy that would haunt society and its people for years to come. Still, Grant’s painting presents us with these beautiful young men naked and stretched in the sunshine, apparently without a care in the world.
Surely he cannot be ignoring what has happened can he? How could so much death and madness be forgotten?
It isn’t, I would argue. Grant’s gaze re-evaluates men’s bodies: he shows us strong, self-assured, virile, taut and tanned masculinity, but these men are not warriors-in-training, they are simply themselves; happy in their skins. And see how inter-related they are. Whilst Seurat’s figures are all individual and isolated (and Nevinson’s are boxed into tight compartments); Grant’s are connected, overlapping, in-communication, in touch.
It seems to be a call for beauty, freedom and new social relations..
If Duncan Grant is seeking a vision of men’s bodies outside or beyond the narrative of war-masculinity that had been so dominant for a decade, then he is also rebelling against – rejecting – the cultural mainstream with his homoerotic gaze (and it would be another half-century of course until homosexuality was decriminalised).
It’s an extraordinary painting that deploys all the decorative qualities of post-Impressionism to suggest a radically queer new way of looking.