Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The bath.

I just read Michel Faber's The Crimson Petal and the White and watched the excellent BBC adaptation and have been thinking about female bathing and its place in art. It has obviously been an popular subject for artists throughout history but that classic fuzzy and cozy kind of "woman in the bath" image, I associate with the 19th and early 20th century artists, particularly Edgar Degas.

Faber's novel traces the relationships of an erudite and cunning young prostitute named Sugar with her wealthy bumbler of a lover William Rackham and his child-like wife Agnes in 1870s London. It has such a magnetic and repulsive atmosphere, full of the smell of sweaty bodies in unwashed clothing and chamber pots and consumptive blood on handkerchiefs and cold, unaired rooms with dark wallpaper. The life of a Victorian prostitute in this book is brutally pragmatic. One of the first scenes is a voyeuristic glimpse into the douching regime of Sugar's friend Caroline. And later, as Sugar is bathing:
"How many hundred times has she performed this ceremony? How many sponges and swabs has she worn away? How many times has she prepared this witches' brew, measuring the ingredients with mindless precision? Granted, in her Church Lane days the recipe was slightly different; nowadays, as well as the alum and the sulphate of zinc, she adds a dash of sal eratus, or bicarbonate of soda. But in essence it's the same potion she's squatted over almost nightly since she began to bleed at sixteen. 
A crucial hairpin gives way; the remainder of her waist-length hair threatens to unfurl into the tepid water. Shivering, she rises, standing above the froth, hands on her thighs. And, at long last, she is able to release the residue of urine, trifling but painful, that wouldn't come out earlier, before her bath. The yellow droplets patter down on the suds, writing dark nonsense into the white of the soap-scum. Is it only piddle draining out of her now? Could there really be anything else left in there? Sometimes she has walked along the street, a full half-hour after a wash, and suddenly felt a gush of semen soiling her underclothes. What could God, or the Force of Nature, or whatever is supposed to be holding the Universe together, possibly have in mind, by making it so difficult to be clean inside? What, in the grand scheme of things, is so uniquely precious about piss, shit or the makings of another pompous little man, that it should be permitted to cling to her innards so tenaciously? 
'God damn God,' she whispers, tensing and untensing her pelvic muscles, 'and all His horrible filthy creation.'"
I remember reading in an art history class about how the models for Renoir and Degas were often "working women" and that bathing regularly was something considered rather suspect since prostitutes did it. The art establishment was scandalized by Degas' drawings of bathing women, while they look innocuous enough today. But it wasn't until after reading The Crimson Petal and the White that these works, for me, began to take on more complexity. In fact, the rosy coziness starts feeling kind of ironic. The ablutions of these models were likely intense, private sessions of the only kind of birth control they could practice for themselves, and not solely the frothy indulgences that baths are today. Sheepgut condoms were available then, but expensive and often recycled. To insist customers use them was impractical. 
So! Anyway, everyone should read the book. And remember that Degas' bathing women aren't just fluff!

1 comment:

  1. Hi, i like that you are interpreting the paintings from a truer perspective. a bit of background helps sometimes in reading, seeing, a painting -leading to a richer experience. x