Soap Bubbles, from Vanitas to Utopia

Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria, Perugia, 16 March – 9 June 2019

The National Gallery of Umbria presents an original exhibition on the iconology of soap bubbles, a hitherto rather neglected topic of art history.

The first meaning of the soap bubble is that of a vanitas, a symbol of the frailty of life and constant proximity of death. Coming perhaps after a sentence of Marcus Terentius Varro (116 – 27BC), “the most learned of the Romans” according to Quintilian: “Quod, ut dictur, si est homo bulla, eo magis senex”, (as one says, if man is a bubble, he is all the more so in his old age), written by Varro in the De Re Rustica when he was eighty years old. The saying was common in the Antiquity: we find it in Lucian of Samosta 125 – 180AD), who compares man to water bubbles in his Charon, as well as in Petronius (Sat.42: “nos non pluris sumus quam bullae”).

Erasmus of Rotterdam revived the expression with his Homo bulla est, Man is but a bubble, and gave rise to an iconography of vanitas which is abundant in Holland and Central Europe during the middle of the 16th century. It is characterized in particular by putti (cherubs, or baby angels) blowing bubbles, the very image of children yet unaware of the brevity of life. An example of this is the Quis evadet by Agostino Carracci, engraved by a follower of Hendrik Goltzius, the German-born Dutch printmaker, in a print that would serve as a model to several copies, such as the one exhibited by a follower of Jacob de Witt. The putto sits on a skull, the classic form of memento mori, in what appears as a redundancy of the meaning, an addition of the idea of fragility to that of finitude. The Allegory of Jan Breughel the Younger is a veritable pictorial dictionary, where scenes of terrestrial pleasures shown in the background are revealed as evanescent by the combination of  icons of fate such as playing cards lying on the ground and several forms of vanitas, such as bubbles, skulls, and crystal objects appearing on the foreground. The Allegory of the vanity of life by Nicolaes van Verendael, dated 1679, is a particularly successful image where we see the bubble floating alone, like a spirit or ghost, above the skull and the spent candle, without any blower nor any object where it might emanate from.


The language of the Vanitas evolved in the 18th century into a more ambiguous set of meanings where the fragility of life remains sotto voce, but lightness blends with melancholy in children’s or “cherubic” games such as those painted by Ignazio Stern, or in portraits of adolescents by Fra Galgario. Chardin (1699 – 1779), in the Laundress painted around 1773, introduces the theme in a typical genre scene where the relative poverty of the interior is contrasted with the lightness of the bubble blown by the child, expressing both tenuous hope and distraction from hardships.

By mid-century the theme had also started taking a scientific turn within the context of the analysis of light, and related optical effects. In 1704 Newton publishes his “Opticks: or a treatise of the reflexions, refractions, inflexions and colours of light.”; the book is a study on the nature of light and colour, and the phenomena of diffraction. The key point is that Newton overturns the view held since Aristotle that pure light is white or colourless, and turns into colour only once it meets matter, where colours are so to speak embedded, a view central to the understanding of medieval symbology; the reverse is actually true. The Treatise is translated into Latin in 1706. These views will understandably fascinate painters, who by trade work with colour and light; the Soap Bubbles by Van Loo, dating 1764, is clearly not only a game as manifested by the seriousness and concentration of the participants: it is a scientific experiment as well. Interestingly, the bubble is at the centre of the painting, as the main “character”, but the only person who actually watches it is the blower. The little boy and the young girl observe neither the bubble, nor the blower, but something which is outside the medallion which serves as a “window” on truth, not the Truth of the divine but that of phenomena, and is perhaps the source of the light which is reflected on the bubble, perhaps the theory itself that enlightens the world of phenomena. 

Van Loo

An interesting twist on the theme of vanitas is provided, in a very leisurely 18th century fashion, by a painting showing three angels “pinching” a lady’s bottom as if in an intent to disclose its most intimate sanctuary, a clear allusion to the brevity of erotic pleasure and the fast-waning delights of erotic life. The painting manages to convey a powerful erotic appeal thanks precisely to the flesh being made more real than mere representation by the pinching of the angels. And it is because of this appeal that the warning, a warning given by angels, may be heard louder than the picture of a mere erotic game. If some form of desire is not awaken through voyeuristic means, then the message could remain a mere exercise in style, or a mere intellectual statement.

The vanitas element further wanes during the 19th century, evolving more towards the idea of fragility than a reminder of death, thus resembling the symbol of the fading rose in poetry. A good illustration of this is provided by The Pastime of Filippo Carcano (1967), where a pretty young girl observes smilingly the soap bubble; although mirrors were a symbol of pride, vanity and lust during the Renaissance, that meaning is somewhat attenuated by the position of the mirror behind the girl sitting on the credenza, as if it were more a pretext to virtuosity – the bubble itself is reflected in the mirror – than a vanitas. Considering that the only thing reflected by the mirror is the girl herself, we must however interpret it in the traditional manner. Another example of similar symbolic value is provided by Blowing Bubbles by Joseph-Victor Ranvier, an academic painter active between 1860 and 1880 approximately. Manet’s Boy blowing bubbles (1867) remains by far the most important of such paintings, wherefrom allegory has vanished. The century will dedicate more efforts to the scientific and mathematical aspects of this odd “object”, under the impulse of the Belgian physicist Joseph Plateau (1801 – 1883) whose laws describe the configuration of soap films, who studied the distortion of moving images, and invented the first stroboscopic device giving the illusion of a moving image.

Max Beckmann painted himself observing a soap bubble in a remarkably meditative canvas dated 1900; the theme was otherwise taken over by photography and posters. An interesting object by Man Ray, titles Ce qui manque à nous tous (“what we all miss”), which original dates 1935, represents a pipe from which a glass bubble escapes. This bubble reverses in a sense the principle of the pipe, which becomes a blowing pipe; what we miss is a world where we experience the pleasures provided metaphorically by smoking the pipe, as materialized by the bubble, but at the same time we are freed from our vulnerability since the glass bubble, if taken care of, never vanishes and continues shining and rejoicing us.  

A number of interesting images associating soap bubbles to playfulness and well-being appeared in the 1920s and 1930s, reversing in the sense the original meaning and connotating lightness, pleasure, access to a world without worries: there is a utopian territory of the soap bubble which will be later found and transformed in architecture.

Computing power allied to new materials have made it possible in the 21st century to conceive and build astonishing architectures which seem to bely gravity, ready to ascend in the skies, or to wear the shapes of unworldly garments.

This architecture sometimes speaks of a quest for Eden, such as is explicitly the case of the Eden Project in St Blazey, Cornwall (1999 – 2001) by Nicholas Grimshaw; the symbolic meaning of the globe, or the bubble enveloping or containing the dwelling is one of protection, of shelter, reminiscent of the womb; hence a proxy for paradise. The Hutong Bubble in Beijing (MAD Architects, 2009), or the Nardini Bubbles at Bassano del Grappa (Massimiliano Fuksas, 2002 – 2004), or even the Unal House built by Claude Häusermann-Costy in the French region of Ardèche, are examples thereof; they were preceded by the spectacular geodesic dome of Richard Buckminster Fuller in Montreal, Canada, built as early as 1967. A more formal approach is that of the Water Cube, built for the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008, where the structure imitates that of foam, itself a metaphor of the pleasures of water. The same year, LAVA Architects built the Green Void in Sydney, where the interspace between bubbles is what appears to the eye, rather than the bubbles themselves.

This voyage will have taken us from the early meaning of vanitas to its very opposite, an allusion to earthly paradise. Or rather the illusion of its opposite.

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