Strokes of Genius

In Praise of the Pool, from David Hockney to Ferris Bueller

Ever since the Romans created a separate bath for the exclusive purpose of swimming and frolicking, we have been enchanted by the pool. With the advent of the modern Olympic games in 1896, swimming competitions brought the pool into the public consciousness, and post-war prosperity made the backyard swimming hole an accessible suburban privilege. Come summer we all start looking for friends with whom we can splash around and celebrate the sunshine. Here’s a look at some who have dipped a toe in for inspiration:

• Beginning in 1944 with Bathing Beauty, MGM star Esther Williams—aka America’s mermaid—pioneered an entire subgenre of musicals set in pools.

• In the classic short story “The Swimmer,” published in 1964, master post-war realist John Cheever linked pools to childhood and the quicksilver of summer as his protagonist Neddy Merrill pool-hops his way home from a party through the backyards of Westchester.

• Pop artist David Hockney, who famously put the pool at Hollywood’s Roosevelt Hotel in quotes by painting scalloped arcs on its cement floor, expressed an ongoing fascination via his languid poolside portraits of friends and lovers.

• Legendary architectural photographer Julius Schulman framed the pool in Pierre Koenig's Case Study House #22 as a cutting-edge sculpture hanging off a cliff over LA.

Slim Aarons’s photographs in Life and Town & Country captured the lifestyle for sale, staging pool tableaux with choice mid-century goods and bikini-clad Betty Drapers—as in his famous “Poolside Gossip,” taken at Richard Neutra’s Kaufman house in Palm Springs, c. 1970.

• The cult 1980s films Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off took up where The Graduate left off, making much of the pool’s seductive powers.

• The iconic cover image for Nirvana's 1991 breakthrough album Nevermind, which took grunge global and sold a katrillion copies, features an infant chasing a dollar bill on a fish hook underwater in a swimming pool.

• The campy B-movie Wild Things blurred the line between romance and cheek with a chlorinated threesome between Matt Dillon, Denise Richards and Neve Campbell.

• In director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s film “The Screaming Man,” awarded a prize by the jury at Cannes last week, a former swim champion who has lost his job as a pool attendant is pressured to contribute to the war effort.
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