Throughout the history of art, the image of the female bather has been intertwined with representations of the female nude. Women are caught in the act of undress, portrayed bathing, washing, and grooming. When recalling these images, one might think of woodcuts made by Kitagawa Utamaro, or the paintings of Edgar Degas or Pierre Bonnard, even work by Rembrandt, or George de la Tour’s infamous Woman Catching a Flea (1640), an intimate depiction of an unrobed woman removing an insect from the soft flesh of her naked stomach. These artworks inevitably prompt complex questions surrounding notions of passivity, permission, and (the invasion of) privacy. It is a pleasure, then, to encounter an exuberant work like Eileen Mayo’s Turkish Bath (1930), an experimental four-colour block linocut, in which a group of women are shown at leisure, enjoying and luxuriating in a collective bathing experience. One woman lies supine reading a book, her long hair hanging off the end of the recliner, wrapped in a red and white striped towel. In the foreground, another woman smiles and fans herself, cooling off and at ease, her breasts exposed and resting over her black and yellow patterned sarong.
Turkish Bath was exhibited in the ‘Second Exhibition of British Lino-Cuts’ at Redfern Gallery in 1930, organised by Claude Flight, who had taught Mayo the technique at the Grosvenor School of Modern Art. Following the exhibition, Mayo made numerous printed works in a similar vein, such as Woman at a Dressing Table (1931) and Morning Tea (1933), with their shared emphasis on thick black lines, and the vibrant use of orange, yellow, and red. In Turkish Bath, the hot pink outlines of their fleshy bodily curves are juxtaposed with the grey and white chequerboard floor tiles. Mayo’s distinctive illustrated style can be aligned with Mary Cassatt’s Women Bathing (1890-1), which similarly emulates the graphic aesthetic of Japanese woodblock prints. In Cassatt’s domestic scene, the female subject is captured with her back facing the viewer, bent over the wash basin, in a refusal of the male gaze.