The Culture Of Clean: Soap In Art

Boy Blowing Bubbles (1869)
Les Valeurs Personelles (1952)
For Footwashing (1952)
Untitled (1990)
Lick and Lather (1993)
Hanging Soap Women (2000)
Cosmic Slop "Black Orpheus" (2011)
soap made of dark matter
Provendi Revolving Soap
Lots Wife. Salted Soap on a Rope
Surface Tension Lamp 3
Bitten Soap, 2013
Bitten Soap Mug

For our final post in "The Culture of Clean" series, a few examples of bar soap's treatment in the visual realm. So if Costco-sized economy packs leave you flat, here are some extraordinary alternatives at a variety of price points. It should be noted: These are mainly for your viewing pleasure—they probably won’t do you much good in the shower.

Visual Art

Boy Blowing Soap Bubbles, 1868 (Édouard Manet): Manet was not alone in painting portraits of young people wiling away the hours blowing bubbles. In the 19th century, this was a fairly common trope, a metaphor for fleeting youth, misspent time, failed aspirations—all sorts of happy thoughts. [1]

Les Valeurs Personelles1952 (René Magritte): The title of this work translates to Personal Values, and Magritte described it as such: “In my picture, the comb (and the other objects as well) has specifically lost its ‘social character,' it has become an object of useless luxury, which may, as you say, leave the spectator feeling helpless or even make him ill.” Oof. [2]

For Footwashing, 1971 (Joseph Beuys): Part of a performance entitled Celtic+, which Beuys initiated by washing the feet of seven spectators in reference to Christian baptismal rites. [3]

Untitled1990 (Tom Friedman): A partially used bar of soap inlaid with a perfect spiral of pubic hair. No further explanation. [4]

Lick and Lather, 1993 (Janine Antoni): A series of self-portrait busts—cast in chocolate and soap—that have been reshaped by the artist. For Lather, Antoni bathed with each soap bust, and later reflected on the experience in an interview with ART21: “I feel really close to the soap bust because we spent a lot of time in the tub together […] she just smoothes down, and then she becomes almost fetal. It’s really quite a nice process. And it’s interesting to think about cleaning and purity and just washing as a kind of ritual and its bigger meaning.” [5]

Hanging Soap Women2000 (Miroslaw Balka): Polish artist Balka strung together over a hundred partially used bars of soap on a steel cable to create this spare, suspended installation. [6]

Cosmic Slop, 2011(Rashid Johnson): Using melted black soap and wax as a medium in many of his painted and sculptural works, Johnson named this series after the 1973 Funkadelic album. [7]

Soap made of dark matter (Darren Bader): Bar on holiday. [9]


Procter & Gamble’s National Soap Sculpture Contest (roughly 1923-1950): Brainchild of public relations maestro Edward L. Bernays, this campaign focused its attention on public schools, hoping some healthy competition would create lifelong Ivory Soap customers. In addition to receiving cash prizes and trips to NYC, winners had their pieces exhibited in museums across America. A young Eero Saarinen (architect of JFK’s TWA terminal) won $100 in the 4th annual contest for an entry he titled Sorrow.

Provendi Revolving Soap: Found in school bathrooms throughout France, these wall-mounted soap systems were developed in 1950 and are currently enjoying new appreciation in the American home design market. [10]

Lot’s Wife. Salted Soap on a Rope, 2007 (Mike Kelley): Kelley created this artist’s edition for the German magazine Texte zur Kunst. It references his 2007 installation, Petting Zoo, which featured a large scale version of Lot’s wife carved from a pillar of salt (and licked by goats in Münster, Germany). Still available for a cool 850, -€. [11]

Surface Tension Lamp, 2012 (Front Design): While a somewhat indirect reference, these soap bubble lamps by Swedish design group Front are too delicate and beautiful for me to leave off the list. [12]

Bitten Soap, 2013 (Maurizio Cattelan and Pierpaolo Ferrari): Sold by the MoMA Store, this functional bar of “bitten” soap is inspired by a photograph first published in the artists’ Toilet Paper magazine. Also reproduced in plate and mug form. [13]

And there you have it! Our soap bar omnibus ends here. But don’t worry—the saga continues any and everywhere you need to bathe yourself. And that’s something we can all be happy about.

—Lauren Maas

Let’s Talk About It! JOIN IN
  • Emma Hager

    I loved this series! Thank you. X

  • Evelyn Brockmann

    Thank you so much as usual ITG for just being as wonderful as you are!
    The Bitten Soap made me think of the most perfect dessert ever-


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