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forced to seek air: Betty Goodwin's Swimmers

Art Gallery of Ontario, Sept. 2018 - March 2019

Role: Curator

Betty Goodwin’s (1923-2008) career as one of Canada’s leading artists focused on the human issues of fragility, mourning and memory. Her Swimmers series from the 1980s highlights both physical and emotional states of vulnerability. The figures suspended in a fluid element appear to be in danger of disappearing or drifting away. As their bodies struggle between floating and sinking, drowning and resurfacing – swimmers are forced to seek air, evoking the tension between fragility and resilience. The visual fragmentation of the figures in water adds to the feeling of danger and struggle. Goodwin created these expressive gestural drawings in graphite, charcoal, oil pastel and paint on transparent paper which she likened to skin or water. She worked and reworked these images with line and colour as she continued her intense, subtle and highly personal explorations of the human form.

 “I see swimmers in a condition under water where, out of necessity, one has to seek air and try to breathe. They are in a state in which why would probably choke if they didn’t find air. In other words, they are seeking a place to breathe, rising, trying to move out.” [The Art of Betty Goodwin, 126]

These prints, created twenty years before the Swimmer Series, show Goodwin’s early interest in the body suspended in space. You can just detect the figure in the swirl of abstract marks so lightly drawn that it looks as though the body is in danger of disappearing or floating away.  The near-drowning experience of Goodwin’s husband Martin in the river behind their country home in Sainte-Adéle Quebec [p.211 Tovell] inspired her sustained engagement with the subject.


The case opposite contains materials from Goodwin’s archives – photographs of Martin swimming and Royal Life Saving Society Canada handbook instruction manuals found in Goodwin’s studio.

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