We live in times in which it can be problematic to write about nakedness, and about nudity in pictures where the pictures are accessible to the public — especially when it is a question of a male viewer viewing the nakedness of female bodies. The relationship between the sexes has become complicated, for wellknown and very good reasons. In the era of Paul Cézanne, it was completely different: the theme of nudity and the (female) nude was a century-old tradition, stretching back to Lucas Cranach the Elder and Titian in the early sixteenth century and with examples including Titian’s Venus of Urbino (1538). Cézanne, however, diverged significantly from this allegorical understanding of the female body, and also from the nineteenth-century conception, with its gradual secularizing of the nude, “bringing it down” into the present day.
In his picture Bathers, Cézanne tellingly takes us out into nature, rendered into rhythmic brushstrokes and wild movements. A number of the figures he portrays have their backs turned to us, and those persons whose faces we can recognize have been anonymized by Cézanne to some degree by means of spreads of paint. Their individuality is of no importance to him. Whether they are standing, sitting on the ground, or rising, most of the figures are looking intently to the left, into the depths of the picture, as if something astonishing were happening there, although it is concealed from us. It is as though Paul Cézanne has taken all the bodily details that might create an erotic tension and made them into abstract sketches, transferring them into a vibrant rhythm of color and form. Their hair, their backs, their arms, and their legs fit into the weave of natural color and form. The figures’ sketchiness emphasizes their fragility and vulnerability. Various cloths can be seen on the ground, together with a little basket and a slumbering dog, but the body of water, placed in the picture’s middle ground as an inviting prospect for the bathers, dissolves almost entirely into the picture’s blue color values. It is, of course, true that this artwork is a study for a significantly larger image, today located in the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. However, the study is painstakingly worked, and thus goes far beyond a sketch.
Markus Stegmann in: «Herzkammer», Museum Langmatt 2020
By allowing a high degree of abstraction to prevail, Cézanne removes the bathers from prosaic reality, transporting them into a daydream Arcadia and giving plenty of room to our yearning for a union with nature. Along with their clothes, the bathers have laid aside their banal everyday natures and — in pictorial terms — their shame: from today’s perspective, this study, with its lightness, its lively rhythm concept, and unpretentious abstract quality is more lucid and “far-sighted” than the painstakingly executed, largeformat painting which places the naked female body at the center once again.