In the 1920s Christopher Wood was viewed by many as the brightest and most promising young British artist of a modern sensibility. Together with his close friend Ben Nicholson, Wood looked to modern French painting for inspiration, and he developed a distinctively simplified, deliberately naïve style which was to become his trademark. Spending extended periods living in Paris he formed friendships and contacts with most of the leading avant-garde artists and writers of the time. In this period, Wood had probably greater first-hand knowledge of Continental contemporary art than any other painter in Britain, and considerably more so even than Nicholson.
In Bathers, Wood depicts a pair of odalisque-like women reclining languidly on the beach looking out at the viewer. One of them holds a Japanese style parasol, and their fashionable swimsuits have been pulled down sensually to reveal their breasts. Their forms effectively frame the composition, leading the eye onwards to the middle distance where a further female figure runs through the surf and waves to her companion - delightfully contrasting action and vigour with stillness and repose. A sense of movement is further accentuated by the full sails of the yacht cutting in towards the shore, and the choppy waves and billowing clouds.
The reclining woman on the left is inspired by monolithic Classical statuary, then being incorporated into his work by Picasso, who is the principal artistic inspiration for Wood’s painting. The strong, statuesque, full-thighed women are a response to Picasso’s Neo-Classical bather paintings. There is some degree of compositional similarity to the first of these pictures Picasso made, Bathers, 1918, which Wood may have seen in Picasso’s studio. One of the most famous of Picasso’s bather pictures was Two Women running on the Beach, 1922. This was used famously as the design for a vast drop curtain for the Ballets Russes production Le Train Bleu. This premiered in Paris in June 1924, and was later performed in London in December that year. It is almost certain because of his admiration for the Ballets Russes and ambition to design productions for Diaghilev that Wood saw this production. Wood’s Bathers and the large, six-fold screen Beach Scene with Bathers, Pier and Ships (sold in these Rooms, 26 June 2017, lot 18, for £365,000) are so close in imagery that they surely offer confirmatory evidence of it themselves.
The storyline of Le Train Bleu was written by Wood’s friend Jean Cocteau, with music by Darius Milhaud, and took its title from the night train which transported fashionable Parisiennes to the Côte d’Azur. The ballet was primarily a celebration of chic beach life, and the production showcased the highly attractive young dancers of both sexes for which the Ballets Russes, in this period, was famous. In particular it promoted Diaghilev’s new male star, the handsome Irish dancer Anton Dolin. Coco Chanel designed the costumes - up to the minute, fashionable swim suits, golf and tennis outfits.
By the mid-1920s seaside holidays and beach life had become emblems of simple pleasures and enjoyment, a more modern bohemian life unfettered by bourgeois restrictions and conventions where the sexes could mingle more freely. And it was an escape too from the stultifying mood of sombre national mourning which had hung over both Britain and France in the years immediately after the end of the First World War from which the young were keen to break free.
In April 1925 Christopher Wood was taken on a trip by his lover Tony Gandarillas from a rainy Paris to the warmth and sunshine of the Côte d’Azur to celebrate his twenty-fourth birthday. They travelled themselves by the actual Train Bleu. They spent the weekend at Marseilles before travelling on to Monte Carlo (where Gandarillas lost heavily at the tables). Here they found many of the artists and musicians they knew from Paris. Wood painted a small number of watercolours but devoted himself principally to socialising and enjoying himself. Picasso was there celebrating Easter with Diaghilev and ahead of the opening night of the Ballets Russes production of Zéphire et Flore. Meeting Picasso again Wood strengthened their friendship. Writing to his mother from the Hotel Bristol on 16th April Wood described his happiness: 'All my friends, the artists, are here so I am having a perfectly wonderful time. Picasso is here and I see a lot of him which gives me more pleasure than anything. He is a delightful person and I think he likes me. He is a great genius and the Leonardo of today. He bought me a drawing book yesterday which he said he was going to give me with a dedicase [sic] which I hope may be a drawing by him … T [Tony Gandarillas] and I spent all day with him yesterday and his wife … Picasso wants to see my work. I don’t know whether to show him my watercolours or not.'
Wood’s Bathers is a synthesis of his first-hand experience and warm memories of the Côte d’Azur, and the stylish celebration of it in Le Train Bleu. Because of its similarity in style and subject matter it is likely to have been painted in London in the autumn of 1925 when Wood was working on his large screen, perhaps either directly before or directly after.
We are very grateful to Robert Upstone for preparing this catalogue entry. Robert Upstone is the author of the forthcoming catalogue raisonné of Christopher Wood.