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ARTIST STATEMENT: BATHERS FOR THE 21ST CENTURY
As a female in the 21st century, aspiring to liberation and only too aware of the way the nude female is objectified and imprisoned in her cage of perfect beauty, I am at odds with my own love of drawing and painting the nude human figure. Until, that is, I think of Edgar Degas. Degas' women are not presented to a viewer in order to please him or her. The artist does not idealize their bodies. They look like real women. They iron, scrub, adjust their dancing slippers, scratch their backs, wash between their toes, just as real women do. His "Bathers" in particular are a muscular bunch, awkward, shapeless, and completely not self-conscious. Degas found a way to present the female as a subject independent of the viewer, freed of the need to appear beautiful, graceful or anything else. She simply is herself. I decided to make a body of work in the same vein as Degas' "Bathers" and see where it took me.
What emerged is a "Bathers" series for the 21st century. I use the same media as Degas: pastel and charcoal on paper with thinned and atomized varnish to hold successive layers of work. I added my hand-painted leaf-themed papers to the mix, which is a departure, I admit. It reflects my obsession with visually connecting humans and nature. For the "Bathers", I work with a live model and together we figure out a pose that 'looks' un-posed. In fact, all these images promulgate a fiction and Degas and I must request that you suspend your disbelief when you look at them. Degas was certainly in the room with his models as I was and he and his models struggled together to create the illusion that they were “honest simple folk, unconcerned with any other interests than those involved in their physical condition.” This is a direct quote from Degas about his "Bathers". Moreover, I know from hard experience that no live model can hold any of these poses for longer than a couple of minutes. In addition to his drawings from life, Degas used a camera. So I have used a camera, a stop action digital camera. Degas used a view camera mounted on a tripod! There were many ways I followed his lead in creating this body of work. At the same time, being female and living now, there were ways I took a different road.
First of all, bathrooms are an invention of the 20th century. Where Degas found copper, wood and drapery, I found tiles, tubs and shower curtains. I also include men, whose bodies I find just as much fun to draw as women's. I don't think Degas ever considered drawing a male nude. Maybe he was not curious about their form as the Renaissance and ancient Greek masters were. The other manner in which I part ways with Degas is that I make my nudes very close up and personal. This is to obviate any impulse you, the viewer, has to objectify them. You might even identify with them. They are certainly in the same room with you. It turns out that this intimacy with a subject is something female artists are more prone to than male ones. Male artists have historically taken a distanced and dominant view of their subjects. Even Degas described his approach as if the viewer were "looking through a keyhole”.
Nevertheless, in Degas' work as in mine, each bather is his or her own person. Because you have suspended your disbelief, you have sensed your own irrelevance to these “honest simple folk” and their unique personalities. They are not posing for you. Maybe, just maybe, my "Bathers" will inspire in you a new sense of your own subjective independence and of your body as your home, inherently a beautiful thing and perfectly suited to Art.
Mabrie Ormes, 2017