When discovering the “pool room” at David Hockney’s late retrospective at the Centre Pompidou in Paris (opening at The Met on November 27th) we were enthralled by the works on view, which included the iconic “A Bigger Splash”, but also curious about pools in general at that period.
We were noticing that pools had started appearing ubiquitously in popular culture in the mid 1960s: in fine art with Hockney, in photography with Slim Aarons, in cinema with Mick Nichols’ The Graduate in 1967 or Jacques Deray’s The Swimming Pool in 1969 (a.k.a La Piscine) featuring Alain Delon and used as Christian Dior’s advert for Eau Sauvage in 2010. Even in literature the short story The Swimmer by John Cheever was published in The New Yorker on July 18, 1964, and adapted in the eponymous movie starring Burt Lancaster in 1968. Everyone was obsessed with pools. So what about them? And why at that given moment in history?
The advent of pools as we’ve come to represent them in our collective conscious started in the U.S around the early 1940’s when a roster of hotels started building them to gain a luxurious competitive edge. Prior to that pools had been common only in Great Britain, where from the 1800’s onwards better water treatment methods had been developed as a response to skyrocketing drowning rates (six public pools were built in London by 1837 to teach the population to swim). However, it is in post-war USA that the phenomenon of pools as a private source of pleasure came to life.
The secluded Hearst castle with its legendary Neptune Pool pioneered the American hedonist and intimate image of the pool, turning it into a coveted playground for Hollywood’s elite. Charlie Chaplin, Cary Grant, the Marx brothers, Greta Garbo, and Clark Gable were among some of William Randolph Hearst’s guests at the castle. Quickly cinema spread this interpretation of pools as toys of the rich and famous through movies. Hearst himself inspired the movie Citizen Kane. In addition, actors and professional swimmers Esther Williams and Johnny Weissmuller glamorized the cool pool lifestyle along with synchronized swimming.
The following 1960’s generations grew up familiar with this more exclusive image of pools. In parallel that decade saw an unprecedented boom in swimming pool sector because of three interrelated factors: first, construction became easier with the improvement of plumbing and filtration equipment (the 1960’s are credited with PVC plumbing, pool skimmers, manufactured pool main drains, underwater lights, cool deck, vinyl-liner pools, and the possibility of modulating a pool’s shape). Second, the United States was experiencing the peak of its post-war economic boom and an important fragment of the population could now afford a pool and its status symbol of American Dream achievement. Finally, the pool and its setting created the perfect space for sexual freedom, hedonism, and abundance…the ideal background to an intensifying consumerist society, but also to a more liberated generation wanting to break society’s taboos in its own backyard.