Friday, March 13, 2015

POST #80: THE WIFE OF BATH – or, Look Who’s In My Attic!

Madame X,   38"x24", oil crayon on paper
I have a friend who used to be an English Lit major at Oxford. He’s fond of checking out my latest paintings and pronouncing them “Chaucerian;” (sometimes, he calls them “Rabelaisian.”)  My first (and last) contact with Chaucer (until recently) was Freshman Literature in college. The instructor put the entire class to sleep reciting unintelligible excerpts from the Canterbury Tales in 14th century English. Who knew that Chaucer’s most memorable character, the Wife of Bath, would turn up decades later in my attic?

Madame Y, 38"x24", oil crayon on paper
Truthfully, I don’t have Chaucer (or Rabelais) in mind when I create formidable sex goddesses – they come out of my subconscious - although now that I have reread the Wife of Bath, I see where they originated.  I always thought I was satirizing popular culture: TV and video stars; they make the Wife of Bath (married/widowed five times) look like Saint Theresa. Chaucer’s character pretended to be pious, very cleverly using Christian dogma to justify her manipulation of men. Since a married woman could not own property in the thirteenth century – the husband took whatever wealth she had – the Wife of Bath learned how to use sexuality to control the men in her life, bragging about her impressive “equipment” and her ability to deploy it. Chaucer describes her as having a noticeable gap between her upper front teeth, a sign of sensuality in those days. A friend of mine, not knowing about the Wife of Bath, got her dentist to fill hers in. She now complains to me that men don’t come on to her as much as before, attributing it to advanced age; I don’t have the heart to tell her it’s the dental work.

"Lust" (from the "Seven Deadly Sins" series),
 68"x44", oil on canvas
Chaucer didn’t invent lusty, manipulative women, although he was probably the first “modern” writer to describe one. When women are powerless politically and economically, they use the weapons at hand.  Who can blame them? The Wife of Bath is, on rereading, rather despicable. Despite women’s recently-acquired “equality,” they still lack the political and social power of men and quickly learn to rely on looks and sexuality to get them what they want.

The first Wife of Bath I knew (although I never made the connection with Chaucer until recently) was my mother’s older sister, Tanta Natasha, a well-endowed Russian Jewish beauty. Like the much-married Wife of Bath, she had been married and widowed several times -and had God-only-knows how many lovers in between. She smoked, drank schnapps, flirted with men, told risque stories (which I didn’t understand) and quickly remarried after any of her husbands passed away. She taught all my cousins to smoke and encouraged them to have affairs. Although my mother detested her, I thought she was great and I’m sure she (not Chaucer) is the unconscious source of all the femme fatales who appear in my work.

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