Steam heat

We’re mainly made of it and largely surrounded by it. So you would think we would have an easy relationship with H2O, particularly when it’s framed and contained at a spa or in the bath or a pool.

But no, no. Water, it turns out, is a wellspring for our ambivalence, a source of cleansing, healing and reinvigoration but also a conduit for our deepest, darkest desires.

“Water is the element of birth, life and also death,” says Karine Laval, whose photographs of swimming pools are so haunting, dreamlike and even airless that you hold your breath looking at them. (See related story.)

Both the spa and the swimming pool have their antecedents in the Great Bath, a 40- by 23-foot brick-lined pool built circa 3000 B.C. at the site of Mohenjo-Daro in what is now Pakistan. But as with much of our culture, our fascination with swimming, bathing and, uh, spa-ing come from those hygienic, athletic ancient Greeks and Romans.

The Greeks enjoyed swimming, bathing after a hard workout and even bathing before rigorous debates in the gymnasiums, Alev Lytle Croutier writes in her sensuous book “Taking the Waters: Spirit, Art, Sensuality” (Abbeville Press). Alexander the Great, the fastidious Greco-Macedonian conqueror of the Persian Empire, was a great proponent of bathing, particularly at the end of his young life in Babylon when the bath was a source of distraction – he would listen to his admiral Nearchus’ sea tales there – and a way to counteract the raging fever that was quite possibly the result of malaria.

Bathhouse blues

The Romans, who devoured Greek culture and aspired to Alexandrian legend, out-Greeked the Greeks by building public bathhouses of marble and mosaics that were fed by their ingenious aqueduct system, stoked by underground furnaces and accompanied by pools, gardens, libraries, galleries and stadiums. These baths, which were not necessarily sexually segregated, were the destination spas of their day.

The emperor Nero is said to have described this as “Sanitas per aquas” (“health through water”), whose abbreviation may be the origin of “spa,” although some hold that the word comes from Spa, Belgium (ancient Roman name, Aquae Spadanae). The emperor most associated with the subject, though, was Caracalla, who created a complex of bathhouses and libraries, the ruins of which are now a tourist attraction.

The Baths of Caracalla (212-216) were a kind of Goldilocks spa experience – a cold room, a hot room, a room that was just right – plus gyms for boxing and wrestling and a roofless swimming pool warmed by two bronze mirrors reflecting the sun’s rays, all of which were graced by rippling sculpted tributes like the hyper-muscular Farnese Hercules.

However, we needn’t get all warm and fuzzy about the guy, who murdered his co-ruling brother in front of their mother – and that was just for starters in a career marked by family assassinations and religious persecutions. Ironically, Caracalla was assassinated during an act associated with the bathroom – relieving himself – the circumstances of which are said to have inspired the expression “caught with your pants down.”

No sex, please, we’re medieval

The Baths of Caracalla, destroyed by those uncouth Ostrogoths – can’t take them anywhere – would be recreated gracefully in an 1899 painting of the same title by Lawrence Alma-Tadema, an artist for whom water was a decorous metaphor for sex. The medieval European Christians would have none of that though. They knew their Bible – King David lusting after a bathing Bathsheba, Susanna being spied on in her toilette by those dirty old men. Unable to separate the hygienic aspects of bathing from its more prurient potential – the way the Jewish people did in their purifying rituals and community baths (mikvahs) – the medieval Christians threw the bath out with the proverbial bathwater. Bathing became strictly proscribed, so much so that some rulers congratulated themselves on bathing a couple of times – a month. No wonder the aristocracy always had perfumed hankies in front of their quivering nostrils. So much for cleanliness being next to godliness.

The oases of that cleanliness were the hamams, or Moorish baths, which flourished particularly in Spain. More intimate versions of the Roman baths, the hamams featured massage rather than physical exertion and were always sexually segregated. Perhaps it was that very segregation and intimacy that led Jean-Auguste-Dominque Ingres to create “Le Bain Turc” (“The Turkish Bath”), an 1862 oil painting that is little more than an excuse to depict a group of luscious female nudes, lounging about in a setting lush with flesh.

It was in the 18th century that Europeans once again plunged into the idea of water’s medicinal properties. Soon everyone who could was flocking to Bath, England (see Jane Austen) or the various Continental “Bads” – including Baden-Baden and Marienbad (which would serve as a muse for the bittersweet 1961 film “Last Year at Marienbad.” )

The 19th-century saw the rise of the private bathroom – pioneered by the ancient Minoans and Egyptians and developed by the French aristocracy – along with the swimming pool. Americans, however, didn’t embrace the private bathroom until the following century. But then they did so with gusto – making bathrooms larger and brighter in color, experimenting with Jacuzzis (introduced in 1968) and hot tubs (a decade later), egged on by soap advertisers who had a financial stake in keeping women luxuriating sexily in the tub. (Showers, first introduced in the 16th century, have been viewed as more active and masculine, Alev Lytle Croutier writes, although anyone who has seen the Head & Shoulders commercial of a “showering” Michael Phelps – running his hands through his thick hair as the water drips down his back – could argue that it is as orgasmic as any shot of Marilyn Monroe rising Venus-like from a pool.)

What lies beneath

Over the last half-century, the individuality and intimacy of the bath, the pool and the spa have heated up the artistic imagination. The bath, for instance, has been the setting for everything from romantic comedy (see Julia Roberts’ Disney prostitute slipping delightedly beneath the bubbles in “Pretty Woman”) to chilling violence (Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” which has made any number of movie lovers think twice before stepping into the shower.)

The pool – with its mixture of serene surfaces and tomb-like depths – has spawned a number of layered artworks. In “The Swimmer,” a 1964 story by the late Ossining resident John Cheever, a suburban Narcissus swims his way across a landscape much like Westchester (the 1968 movie with Burt Lancaster was shot in Connecticut), the pools nestled into a patchwork of stately homes and winding roads taking him deeper into a past that brings him face-to-face with the oblivion of his present.

In his California swimming pool paintings of the 1960s and ’70s, David Hockney plays with surface and depth in a different way, using flat blocks of color and wiggling lines to create an artifice and theatricality that is as dreamlike as Karine Laval’s photographs.

“I never thought the swimming pool pictures were at all about mere hedonist pleasure,” Hockney says in the catalog for the 1988 Hockney retrospective, which traveled to The Metropolitan Museum of Art. “They were about the surface of the water, the very thin film, the two-dimensionality.”

Ah yes, pay no attention to the nude young men lounging by or emerging from those pools, their tan lines emphasizing their buttocks. Kind of cheeky that disingenuousness, right?

Except that in some of those paintings, like “A Bigger Splash” (1967), there are no nude youths, Ingres’ bathers or Alma-Tadema nymphs, no Michael or Marilyn, no conspiring Hitchcock victim or disenchanted Cheever Everyman.

There’s just the souvenir splash of the preceding swimmer and the diving board and presumably, you approaching its edge, ready to take the plunge.

1 Comment

  • David G. Kramer says:

    It appears that I have the drawing/watercolor study for this outstanding oil painting as signed by the artist. Thank you for your Google publication as this makes research so much more a joy.

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