July 22, 2011 10:19 pm

A 21st-century Wife of Bath?

The artist Tracey Emin is similar to Chaucer’s heroine in more ways than one
The Wife of Bath

Character: A woodcut of the Wife of Bath from Richard Pynson’s 1492 edition of Geoffrey Chaucer’s ‘The Canterbury Tales’

Tracey Emin is meant to be the epitome of a contemporary artist. In a way, this is true; she has taken to new extremes the process of blurring or erasing the boundaries between an artist’s life and her or his work which preoccupied many 20th century artists. In every imaginable particular she has confronted the onlooker with the supposedly unvarnished reality, what it feels like to be Tracey Emin.

But as I went round her vast (bloated?) retrospective “Love is What You Want”, hanging until mid-August in the Hayward Gallery, I suddenly connected her with a figure from quite another time; what if Emin is our 21st-century version of Chaucer’s Wife of Bath? Remember how Alisoun (the Wife) begins her famous prologue with an appeal to experience over book-learning; what could be more true to the spirit of Emin, all of whose work is a hymn to experience (and who never seems, not that it matters, to have learned to spell)?

Both are self-confessed bad girls; both are unabashed about their sexuality, in all three of the definitions in my Collins dictionary, that is, the state or quality of being sexual, the preoccupation with sexual matters, and the possession of sexual potency. Emin has given us drawing after drawing, photograph after photograph, showing herself with legs splayed, money gushing from her vagina, undergoing an abortion, yearning for a lover. Graphic paraphernalia record the aftermath of nights of passion. A video shows Emin approaching a dog on a bridge and imputing to this noble, long-suffering animal, via a crude form of ventriloquism, the wish to have sexual intercourse with her; the dog’s infinitely sad eyes and general air of self-restraint indicate that nothing could be further from its mind.

Alisoun, for her part, talks very publicly, and with touching pride, about her most private parts. Such unabashedness about female sexuality has been a rare commodity in art and literature in the centuries separating Chaucer and Emin.

Alisoun and Tracey might even be about the same age. Alisoun was 40 when she married the last of her five husbands and the only one she “took for love and no richesse”, the 20-year-old Oxford scholar Jankyn with his “pair of legs ... so clene and fair”, who read her extracts from his favourite book detailing the wickedness of wives, clumped her so hard she lost her hearing in one ear (she retaliated by tearing out pages from the book and pushing him into the fire), but gave her a good time in bed.

He has passed on, in the way of his four predecessors, by the time we meet Alisoun on her pilgrimage to Canterbury – the only one of her five husbands for whom she feels regret – and she has not given up hope of acquiring a sixth. Emin is now 48 and has not shown any signs, as far as I know, of wanting to enter a convent. Alisoun does not mention children and childlessness has become a major theme of Emin’s art.

In fact for all her sociability and presence on the party scene in real life, Emin nearly always seems to be alone in her art. In videos she dances alone, rides solo into the sunset on Margate beach, or runs through a harsh, desiccated landscape dressed as a Cypriot bride. The famous bed, for all its evidence of frenetic activity, seems an essentially solitary place. In all this she is the opposite of Alisoun, who is never alone, even if not always in the best of company.

That is not a criticism of Emin so much as a reflection of the way life has changed, at least in the urban west, since the 14th century. The context for the Wife of Bath’s prologue and tale is the highly sociable one of a pilgrimage; earlier, while married to her fourth husband, she tells us that “She loved to be gay ... to walk from house to house, to hear sundry tales.” Somehow, despite her initial assertion that she can speak of “woe that is in marriage”, it all sounds rather fun, and not least the time in bed.

Harsh though it might sound to say this, I don’t get much sense of enjoyment from Emin’s highly sexed life, and absolutely no sense of the human particularity of any of her lovers. They have disappeared as completely as the males of some species of spider, consumed by the female in the act of copulation.

You might think I am over-egging the parallels between Alisoun and Tracey, considering that one is a fictional character created by a male artist, quite a long time ago, and the other a real and living human female. But hold on, isn’t the “Tracey Emin” we see in the art a kind of fiction too; and what if we were to view her not as a tragic victim but as an essentially comedic character, a rollicking, rumbustious embodiment of life?

harry.eyres@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/eyres

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