Berkeley Talks: Artist Paul Chan on the ‘Bather’s Dilemma’

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Painting by Henri Matisse called "Bathers by a River"

In artist Paul Chan’s lecture, he explores the importance of bathers throughout art history. One work he discusses is “Bathers by a River” by French artist Henri Matisse (pictured). (Painting by Henri Matisse via Wikimedia Commons licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported)

On Oct. 29, artist Paul Chan delivered the 2019-20 Una’s Lecture, a series sponsored by the Townsend Center for the Humanities since 1987. In his talk, called the “Bather’s Dilemma,” Chan explores the figure of the bather — a visual trope with a rich history, and a prominent theme in his own work — as an embodiment of pleasure that is linked to the act of renewal.

“The bather in art history has a long and storied pedigree,” says Chan. “What I was interested in was how this motif inspired a few artists to experiment with new ways to depict a human form that took into account movement in different ways.

Paul Chan gives a lecture at a podium

Chan delivers the 2019-20 Una’s Lecture on Oct. 29. (Screenshot from UC Berkeley video by Educational Technology Services)

“Thinking about bathers touched a nerve that was sensitive to a need I didn’t realize was in me,” he continues. “I needed some way to think about whether pleasure has a place in these punishing times and whether our capacity for pleasing and being pleased has any bearing on how we renew ourselves to better meet what genuine appeals of progress asks of us.”

Chan is the winner of the 2014 Hugo Boss Prize, awarded  by the Guggenheim Foundation to an artist who has made a visionary contribution to contemporary art. His art is held in numerous permanent collections, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Art Institute of Chicago.

The Una’s Lectures were endowed in 1969 as part of the Una’s Gift by Mr. Edward Hunter Ross in honor of his wife, Una Smith Ross. In keeping with her wishes, the Una’s Gift is an endowment for inviting distinguished scholars in the field of the humanities to Berkeley for the purpose of delivering one or more lectures, meeting with faculty and students in their fields of study, and conducting or participating in seminars and colloquia. The gift also supports graduate student fellowships, awarded to female students working on historical projects.

Read more about Chan’s lecture, the “Bather’s Dilemma.”

Learn more about Una’s Lectures.

Watch artist Paul Chan’s lecture, the “Bather’s Dilemma.” (UC Berkeley video by Educational Technology Services)