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Monday, October 12, 2009

The Bathers Pool (Venus Is Still Venus) by Robert Colescott

Dear Blog Readers,

My current assignment for my Creativity class is to write about a work of art with the depth, analysis, and curiosity of Rilke writing letters on the subject of Cezanne. What could be more the modern-day equivalent to a letter than a blog post? It's a letter to anyone who cares to read it. (And with all the talk of nipples and genitals, I am sure my traffic is going to soar.)

I chose my work of art carefully; I wandered the halls of the BMA until I found a work that would give me plenty to think about, one that was part of the permanent collection and could therefore be photographed, and one that had a place from which I could comfortably view it for a couple of hours without being in anyone's way. I settled down on the bench with my sketchbook and pencils and tried to draw it. Alas, I was happy I had my camera, because I could not begin to do it justice. Here is the photo I took of the painting; remember that the colors aren't going to be quite right and I am unable to take an unblurry photo to save my life.

The Bathers Pool (Venus Is Still Venus) was finished in 1985 and is acrylic on canvas. The artist, Robert Colescott, died this past June. I was not familiar with his name or his work, but I was instantly attracted to it because of the colors and the title. The painting is very large, perhaps 8 feet tall and 11 feet wide and is currently located in the contemporary wing of the BMA.

The painting features five female subjects, one of them Caucasian and the other four of African descent. The landscape -- the Bathers Pool of the title -- is a deep teal oasis with shadows of forest green and reflections of deep plum and red-orange. The placement of paint in this pool has a smooth quality and may have been applied with a flat knife rather than a brush. I could not see any brush marks, but the application isn't so even that it seems rolled-on, either. The underlayer of the pool is sky blue, but the overlay of green or yellow turned most of it teal. The effect is one of tranquility, paradise, an oasis.

Surrounding the pool on all sides are rocks or perhaps mounds of earth; the shape and brushstrokes (which are narrow but long and swirling) suggest the former but the color suggests the latter. The colors nearest the pool are shades of brown, from shadows of near-black to highlights of orange-yellow reminiscent of some kinds of clay. Another reason I think this landscape may be earth rather than rock is that a couple of the women appear to be smeared with this same color, as though they are performing a skin-purifying beauty ritual.

Further into the distance are mountains, deep crimson bases with yellow and orange peaks. The brushstrokes are broad and thick. The sky, only visible in about 1/5 of the painting, is cerulean, deep royal blue, indigo, and a small amount of black. I've never seen an actual sky this color; in combination with the red and orange mountains and the inability to detect a natural light source, the scene is otherworldly and a bit eerie, though enchanting.

The central figure in the painting is the caucasian subject, the one I assume to be Venus. She is the largest thing in the painting. She stands in the pool, the water hitting her at about knee-height. Her right leg is crossed over the left and slightly raised. Her torso twists to the right and the waist. Her torpedo-shaped breasts point straight ahead. Her belly has a slight pooch. She has no visible navel that I could determine. Her hips are quite narrow. Her arms are exaggerated in length, giving the figure a grotesque appearance. Her right arm is bent at the elbow and wrist, and the back of her right hand rests on her right hip. Her neck is at an odd angle which suggests she is cocking her head to the right.

Now to describe Venus's face. Her lips are depicted as of equal width, like a triangle bisected neatly down the middle. Her nose is very small in proportion to everything else on her face. Her forehead is very broad. Only her left eye is visible; it is very large and cat-shaped, the iris bright blue, the same shade as the lightest color in the painting's sky. The eye's pupil is visible but not prominent. The eyeball is bright white. The eyelid is darker than the rest of the face. Her hair appears to be curled and piled atop her head, with more hanging down her neck. Her hair color is light brown with prominent gold highlights and subtle black shadows. The overall impression of her hair color is blonde. The skin color over her whole body and head is peach with medium brown used for contour and shadow. Her fingernails and lips are scarlet. Her nipples are dark red and small.

Venus's gaze is outward, not quite at the painting's viewer, but not at anything within the painting, either. Her expression is placid, vacant, and hard to read. Her body language is confident, although the crossed leg does indicate her desire to hide the pubic area. She seems to be the light source of the painting, the only thing the color of light, glowing from within.

[To keep myself from getting confused, I labeled the other four women in the painting A, B, C, and D, from left to right. Venus stands between figures C and D.]

Figure D stands behind Venus and submerged up to her waist in the pool. Both arms are raised above her head. Her skin is such a dark brown and black that it's difficult to distinguish her jawline or hands, which disappear into their backgrounds. Her lips are large, red, and puckered as if dreaming of a kiss. Her breasts are large and round. Her irises are black and the whites of her eyes are very white. Her nose, although not easy to see, appears from the brushstrokes to be wide. Her navel is noticeable. Her hair is black and curly and looks like it's in a ponytail or chignon. She seems to be looking either at Venus or over at figure B. The expression on her face is surprise or maybe wonder.

Figure C stands on the shore, sharing the center of the painting with Venus. Her body language is the least-confident of anyone in the scene; she stands holding a fig leaf over her genitals, slightly hunched as if in self-protection. Her limbs are very thin. Her breasts are small but full, with dark nipples. Her skin color is reddish-brown, a mixture of dark and medium browns with red highlights. Her lips are bright red. Her nose is very large and broad, a stereotypically African nose. Her eyes are gray and cloudy -- the whites are quite dark rather than actually being white. Her hair is black with bright red streaks. She looks at Venus from the corners of her eyes with an expression of fear and/or hatred.

Figure B raises her arms over her head as in the fifth position of ballet. She stands in the pool submerged to just below her knees. She has a voluptuous, womanly body, with an hourglass figure and heavy breasts. Hers is the only visible pubis is the painting. Her nipples are large and dark. Her skin color is very dark brown and she appears to be smeared with bright ochre mud. Her lips are bright red. The whites of her eyes are very white and the irises black. Her hair is brown and yellow, curly and face-framing. There are green highlights around her face, in her hairline. Her expression is bemused; the lips and eyes seem to smile slightly. She looks to the left, either at figure D or at Venus.

Figure A sits on the shore, knees up, in the lower left corner of the painting. She has short black and red hair. The only visible part of her nose is her prominent nostrils. Her face and body appear to be caked with dried mud. Her skin is reddish-brown. She looks at either Venus or figure C with an unhappy expression. A gold and white apple with a bright green stem sits near her on the bank.

One question I ask myself about this painting is, "Who do these women represent?" Venus is somewhat obvious. There is the mythological figure, the Roman goddess of love, most famously depicted by Botticelli in his 15th century painting, The Birth of Venus. In this painting by an African-American man in the 20th century, a white woman surrounded by four black women clearly represents something contentious in this relationship. Venus looms over the painting and is her own source of light, yet her limbs are grotesque in their proportion and her facial expression is both cocky and vapid. The other four women look toward her, some of them not directly at her, as if she is something to be admired, feared, and detested all at once. One thought is that Venus represents a standard of beauty that only a narrow group of people fit into. As for the other women, perhaps each represents a reaction to that impossible and boring standard: wonder, hatred, sadness, and a challenge. Indeed, figure B, the one whose expression seems to be bemused and perhaps a challenge to Venus, is actually the most classically beautiful woman in the painting, with a voluptuous but proportional figure and femininely pretty face. Even her pose is most like a classical statue.

One question I have not been able to answer is the significance of that golden apple, beyond the connection to the Garden of Eden and how this paradise mimics that one. The only golden things in the painting are it and Venus; maybe it represents a way for the women to buy into the beauty myth. I am happy that none of them are biting.

I admire this painting both for its artistic merits and its message. I hope to see more works by Robert Colescott in the future. I hope I have been able to elucidate this painting for you a bit; if you have any insights of your own, please share them.



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