Bather's Delights


Phhwww! February has gone away. The Seine is turning blue again. And despite the looming Ides of March, the love of beautiful bodies is returning to Paris--at least in this city's more interesting galleries. First and most interesting is La Toilette: The Birth of Intimacy at the jewel-like Musée Marmottan Monet a 500-year celebration of bathers, women bathers overwhelmingly, while a much smaller, nearly unknown gallery just behind the Louvre, dedicated to male nudity is also opening a show of American photographer Will McBride's images of playful boys and young men.

Bathing as understood through the images of today's global soap industry is all about cleanliness, but la toilette wasn't always just so. La toilette since the time of the Romans suggested the place and the procedures of presenting yourself: to your adored, to your family, to the grand public. The gods no less than the mortals attended to la toilette.

The well attended body was a reflection of the well-mannered soul. Come the Italian Renaissance, however, public bathes steadily were replaced by more intimate and more amorous zones--at least for the wealthy who could afford servants to tote buckets of heated water into their boudoirs.

Rather quickly, however, privacy and probity took reign such that by the 16th century as peoples from the Germanic north descended further and further into the sumptuary zones surrounding the Mediterranean. Too much display of wealth and fashion toned down the silks that elegant men had favored.

Ladies' cosmetic tables were set apart from gentlemen's studies.
Not until Renoir and Degas and their band of Impressionists brought a reunited sensuality and intimacy back to France, and the thrill of Napoleonic masculinity had fallen into eclipse, would the tenderness of the bath and its aftermath return to public celebration, preparing the way for Proust and Picasso to part the curtains onto the tastes and desires long damned by the Catholic hierarchy.

And then we come to today, where the ever-present threat of nuclear annihilation rides on the back of moonwalkers and inter-galactic space odysseys leading us into the seductive trap of cold, mechanical irony.

At Nicole Canet's tiny Gallerie Au Bonheur de Jour, which concentrates exclusively on both the innocent and the debauched pleasures of the male form, a new show is just opening, displaying Will McBride's rarely seen Salem Suite. McBride was an exceptional chronicler of post-war Germany--from his portraits of Jack Kennedy, Willy Brandt and Konrad Adenauer to quick images of children playing in the ruins of war. He was equally known for his iconic photographs from the film world, especially a famous photo of Romy Schneider in a diaphanous night gown in Paris. Then there was the scandal raining down on hims over a photo of his pregnant wife nude. The Salem series were taken in the early 1960s portraying adolescent boys and young men in the collective bathing room of the Salem Castle boarding school in southern Germany. The Salem series, reveals, McBride wrote, the "characteristics that gradually vanish with age: impulsivity, honesty, emotionality."
image (c) Will McBride

Canet's gallery, while largely dedicated to photography, also has scores of etchings, sculptures and a few paintings--again all focused on various versions of male bodies engaged in various sorts of male activities. An earlier show last fall, entitled Plaisirs & Débauches au masculine, resulted in a fat, privately published and individually numbered category of the same name.

Photos except for Will McBride by Frank Browning