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Woman in Bath:
Finding Joy in Starting Points

by Sydney Weiner

My 9-year-old sister, only two years younger than me, excitedly hands me the audio guide and almost skips over to where my mom was standing. After 2 agonizing hours, my dad has finally allowed her to leave to get chocolate and churros. Whenever we go to a foreign country for one of my mom’s lawyer conferences, my dad makes us go to churches and museums while my mom is more focused on the “fun” stuff. Case in point: while my dad had insisted we had spend the day at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, one of Madrid’s most famous art museums, my mom had taken us to see a production of the ‘80s jukebox musical Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (or, Priscilla, Reina del Desierto) the night before. 

As I put the headphones on, my dad shows me how to use the audio guide. Press the numbers listed next to the painting and then press the green button. If you want to stop the audio, press the red button. We go to the lobby, where they are having a temporary exhibit on Roy Lichtenstein. His 1963 painting Woman in Bath is on display. My little fingers type in the number and press the green button, changing my life forever.

Now, it seems like the most obvious thing in the world: of course art is a reaction to the world, something with meaning. That’s why we study art history and theorists with much larger vocabularies than me spend years arguing over their interpretations. But before, art had just been boring and superficial: Monet painted pretty sunsets; Van Gogh, crows and cool warped trees; the angular medieval sculptures of the saints looked weird; Pollock's paintings were something I could’ve done myself if you gave me a can of paint and a canvas. As I listened to a voice with a lilting English accent talk about pointillism, pop art, and Lichtenstein’s criticism of America’s consumerist culture, I realized that there was so much more to art than I had ever thought. Buying a print of the painting was a no-brainer, hanging it up in my room, even easier. Now, I’ve decided to declare art history as a double major, something I never thought I would do.

When I was a junior in high school, I wrote a piece about Woman in Bath for my school’s art magazine. I talked about how at first, the painting seems to be an encapsulation of everything that is wrong with men’s art portraying women: she’s physically flawless, a recreation of an ad. We’re also in her bathroom while she bathes, invading her privacy. However, I continued, this recreation of a soap advertisement was made to critique capitalism rather than reinforce it, requiring a deeper look; instead of happiness, her smile and vacant gaze might actually betray a gnawing sadness. Ultimately, this “perfect” woman with the strained smile becomes a symbol of the past that asks us to consider how different our world is to hers.

I didn’t write the article out of any real excitement about the painting–it was a favor to a friend who was the editor in chief and needed more articles for the spring edition. However, as I was back home for Thanksgiving break and decorating my new room, I was struck by my hesitance to hang the print up in my room again. I started asking myself deeper questions than I had when I was younger: what does it mean for me to wake up staring at this beautiful, soulless woman every morning? What did it mean for me as a woman in 2015? What about now, in 2023?


I think the answer lies in anger and the pandemic. Before the article, the print didn’t really have any significance to me. It was just a decoration on a wall. Still, it was a decoration I put up right when lockdown started and I was searching for some kind of meaning in the madness, for some way to channel my confusion, anger, and grief. Woman in Bath impacted my life so much that I felt like it needed to have some kind of significance. And because I was unhappy, the significance must have been negative. Instead of looking inwards to try to improve my circumstances, I chose to lash out. 


My sister is very into journaling and mindfulness. She’s taught me a lot about the importance of having a positive outlook on life. It’s not enough to say “fuck it, we ball” or “win some, lose most” as my friends and I like to joke. Instead, we have to be intrinsically motivated, to look at things with a glass half full mentality. It’s not like you can’t be cynical (being happy all the time is impossible), but you have to do your best to bring yourself back up from the low points.


If I could sum up being a Duke student in one word, it would be “overwhelming.” There’s so much to balance–our classes, friends, work, extracurriculars, social expectations, home lives–all while we, still flush with hormones and not-quite-developed brains, are constantly being reminded how fucked up the world is. It’s very easy to point to something, like I did Woman in Bath, and take out your frustration. However, as I’ve learned, blaming everything else for my problems isn’t going to help. Instead, giving myself grace and appreciating what I have will. And so, I recently started stopping myself when I walk around campus to be present and take in how beautiful all of this is. How much I worked to get here and how lucky I am to be here and be able to do everything that I do here. How lucky I am to have amazing friends, communities that care about me, and the chance to study what I love. The solution to feeling overwhelmed and out of control isn’t getting rid of them when they come up, but to feel them, accept them, and turn them into something positive. 


There’s one thing about Woman in Bath I still can’t get over. No matter how much Lichtenstein tried, he couldn’t exactly replicate the advertisement he was replicating. His little circles are uneven, some with more paint than others. In the article, I wrote that “No matter how mechanized everything becomes, no matter how much machinery and humanity may become intertwined and we detach ourselves from our emotions, we’ll never succeed.” No matter how much…we detach ourselves from our emotions, we’ll never succeed. To be human is to feel, both for better or for worse. So, if we can’t detach ourselves from our emotions, we might as well engage with them, question them, challenge them. And while we’re at it, we might as well examine the things that make us feel so deeply.


As much as I was mad at the print when I was a junior in high school, I now look at it with love. Woman in Bath is the reason why I fell in love with art and art history. It brought me closer to my museum-loving dad. It brought me to a field where people appreciated my detail-orientedness. Into contact with pieces of art that have made me feel every kind of emotion, making me once again appreciate the world that I had tried (and failed) to tune out during the pandemic. That made me love feeling again and connecting with others. 


I ended the article by concluding that the painting “reflects an end point. But I’ve chosen to see it more as a warning of the past and a demand for a more emotionally open future.” The painting itself may be an end point, a push to the extremes of misogynistic stereotypes and consumerism. But the print, the recreation of a recreation of a soap ad from 60 years ago, was my starting point; I hope that everyone can locate their starting point to something that has brought them joy too. They can be a reminder of a time when everything was new, vibrant, mysterious, exciting. When a beautiful new world was revealed to us. And, especially in times where it’s easy to get lost and overwhelmed, it’s especially important to have something to be a reminder of all the good in the world. So, take a moment and think: What’s your starting point? 

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