Throughout history, painters and sculptors have felt drawn to the water element, portraying scenes of bathers in rivers, lakes, seas, or the intimacy of their homes. In this article, we will explore the ways in which three contemporary artists navigate their connection with water and the meaning it carries for them.
by Gabriella Mazza
Take a walk down Park Avenue, in the stretch between 34th and 39th Street, and you’ll be greeted by an exquisite défilé of charming swimmer sculptures. Monumental in size, the women tower over the cityscape like queens of an aquatic realm, exuding poise and serenity.
The superbly crafted figures, made of painted epoxy resin, are the masterful work of American hyperrealist sculptor Carole Feuerman. The sculptures are part of an open-air exhibition titled Sea Idylls, which features nine sculptures of swimmers in various poses and will be on view until December 10, 2023.
The women look peaceful and content, reveling in the tranquil lull of a summer day by the pool, or are depicted in dynamic postures, transmitting vitality and energy. Beyond elegant beauty, they represent mental steadiness and equilibrium, reminding us that joy lies in the simple things and the stillness of the present moment.
Feuerman is not the first artist–nor will she be the last–to feel a fascination with water and swimmers. Throughout history, painters and sculptors have felt drawn to the water element, portraying scenes of bathers in rivers, lakes, seas, or the intimacy of their homes.
Images of women in a bikini can be found as early as ancient times, as seen in the ruins of Villa Romana del Casale in Piazza Armerina, Sicily, which hosts one of the richest and largest collections of Roman mosaics in the world. In subsequent centuries, masters such as Titian, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, and Ingres also explored the theme in their paintings.
Impressionist artists were particularly fond of the subject matter. Bathers alone or in groups were immortalized by Paul Cézanne, Edgar Degas, Claude Monet, Mary Cassat, Joaquín Sorolla, and many of their other contemporaries. This was partly driven by their emphasis on capturing the transient effects of light, and partly by their fondness for naturalistic everyday scenes.
The trend continued in modern and contemporary art, with water carrying rich symbolism and psychological meaning, and acting as a pretext to unveil skewed gender dynamics and racial inequalities in both public and intimate settings. A few examples are David Hockney’s painting Domestic Scene, depicting one man showering while another soaps his back, and Derek Fordjour’s portrayals of Black rowers.
In this article, we will explore the ways in which three contemporary artists navigate their connection with water and the meaning it carries for them.
Understanding an artist’s fascination with swimmers and bathers is not difficult. Simply put, swimmers are beautiful to look at. They evoke images of graceful beauty; their sculpted bodies stand as symbols of athletic vigor and anatomical perfection. Artists are inspired by the intensity and determination of their movements and intrigued by the harmonious proportions of their bodies and musculature as they flow through water.
This is the driving force behind Mela Cooke’s latest series of bronze sculptures. Originally from Australia, Cooke grew up near the beach and soon became a keen swimmer–a pastime shared by many of her fellow Queenslanders. Her artwork draws from her background as a physical therapist and combines her interest in human anatomy with her personal experience as a recreational athlete and her admiration for the qualities possessed by swimmers.
“My latest sculptures of swimmers have focused on representing the superb balance that swimmers display. Serenity, calm, and quiet determination are also attributes of swimmers that I like to portray in my sculptures and the inherent timelessness and strength of bronze is the perfect medium for this portrayal.”
The figures are captured in restful poses in between laps, leisurely chatting by the edge of a pool, or getting ready to dive into the water. Elegant and endearing, they are often loving portrayals of family members, who share her passion for aquatic sports. Cooke’s swimmers are doors into the artist’s intimate sphere while symbolizing the quiet beauty of the natural world.
Cassi Paguio is a Filipino painter and marine photographer who depicts the wonders of the oceanic abyss and how human beings relate to the water element. A certified rescue scuba diver since a very young age, Paguio collects data from coral reefs in different parts of the world, using images taken underwater as the basis for her paintings. Alongside a desire to preserve delicate marine ecosystems and raise awareness of the dangers faced by these environments, Paguio observes how the human psyche reacts in connection with water.
Her new series–partially inspired by John Everett Millais’ Ophelia–marries her interest in portraiture with her fascination with the aquatic realm, picturing women immersed in partially or completely filled bathtubs. She says, “Due to the immense passion I have for the ocean, water has been a recurring theme in my recent work. In addition to depictions of the ocean, I like to push the boundaries of human interaction with water and explore water in different aesthetic forms.”
For Paguio, water is also a means to address broader cultural discrepancies. By portraying dark-skinned Filipino models, she defies established aesthetic canons and exalts beauty from a decolonized perspective.
“The colonial mentality is a rampant issue in the Philippines, considering that we were colonized three times and a lot of our classical literature and art is based on very European movements,” she says. “I draw from a lot of research and I tend to use Asian women, morena models, and dark-skinned Filipino models, because there is less representation for that group of people in the Philippines, and the beauty standards for a very long time have not been very kind and open to morena women, such as myself.”
Paguio’s masterfully executed work brims with passion and reverence for the wonders of nature, daring us to find unity across diversity.
Kaitlin Kraemer is an American abstract oil painter and copper artist who has made her home on the French Riviera. Her latest series of painted copper plates––a medium that appeared to her in a dream—is an ode to nature and her marine surroundings.
Using corrosive agents, she manipulates oxidation to create vibrant and luminous colors like emerald green, cerulean, aqua blue, and turquoise that evoke the complexities of the aquatic palette and the movement of the ocean.
“My copper pieces are inspired by nature, and centered on elements of water,” she explains. “Rejuvenating and healing, we also know the ocean to be mysterious and at times, quite destructive. By working with copper, I am able to capture the fragility and destruction of nature, through molding and corroding each piece, as well as highlight the beautiful hues of blue and green that flow throughout. An undercurrent of tranquility amidst a sea of colorful chaos.”
Kraemer’s natural explorations reflect the conflicting forces of our environment that also live within ourselves. She believes in the emotive power of contemporary art and the artist’s role in nurturing these emotions and fostering the opportunity for transcendence.
“Inspiration for me is two-fold,” she explains. “It comes from within, and without. I am inspired by nature as well as by the human condition and experience. Why, what, when, and how we do what we do–why, what, when, and how we see what we see–and I try to articulate all of those experiences visually. The simple complexities of the everyday: within, and without.”
Human beings’ relationship to water is primordial and instinctive, exerting an enduring fascination for artists who continue to push the boundaries of the trope with new media and forms of expression. Water is the source of life; it is a symbol of purity, movement, and rebirth.
Quoting the words of Canadian poet Margaret Atwood, “Water does not resist. Water flows. When you plunge your hand into it, all you feel is a caress. Water is not a solid wall, it will not stop you. But water always goes where it wants to go, and nothing in the end can stand against it. Water is patient. Dripping water wears away a stone. Remember that, my child. Remember you are half water. If you can’t go through an obstacle, go around it. Water does.”