Sunday, April 1, 2012

Keep Young and Beautiful

Bronze Foot from the Bloody Countess’ Bathtub (inspired by the legend of the Countess Erzsébet (Elizabeth) Bathory) – Antique apothecary bottle; genuine antique bronze bathtub foot in the shape of a winged lion; dried thorn branches; antique cameo of young woman’s profile on gilt chain; amber glass bead; embroidered, sequined and beaded French silk ribbon; color print of Bathory coat-of-arms; black and white print of thorns

As the old song says:

Keep young and beautiful
It's your duty to be beautiful
Keep young and beautiful
If you want to be loved

Don't fail to do your stuff
With a little powder and a puff.
Keep young and beautiful
If you want to be loved.


And boy are they right!

Especially now as we skip our way into spring, Mother Nature’s time of renewal and rebirth, with all those nascent buds budding, blossoms blossoming, and sprouts sprouting. Everything is vibrant, vital, effervescent, and alive.

Youth is paramount, and it’s amazing what some of us will do to keep it as old Father Time marches on. It borders on the masochistic!

From the beginning, we’ve been obsessed with youth and the appearance of being eternally young. The ancient Egyptians lightened their skin and kohled their eyes. The Greeks slathered on face paints of pulverized chalk. Medieval fashion impelled young women to pluck their hairlines, giving them a higher forehead, while the regal thirteenth-century women of Italy wore pink lipstick to highlight their wealth and position. During the Renaissance and into the courts of Elizabeth I and Louis XIV, women strove for ever paler and paler skin, using a whitening agent composed of carbonate, hydroxide, and lead oxide to create a porcelain-like veneer. These ingredients, cumulatively building up in the body with each use, resulted in many cases of muscle paralysis (not much different from today’s Botox injections, a derivative of the Botulinum toxin, which supposedly safely, and temporarily, paralyses facial muscles into statue smoothness). And then there were those who powdered their cheeks with arsenic, many achieving, accidentally it must be said, the ultimate pallor of all—death.

Women also began bleaching their hair with lye. Unsurprisingly, this noxious substance eventually caused their crowning glories to wither away to billiard ball baldness, so wigs were introduced. These were frequently so elaborate, so tall, and/or so intricately coiffed that they had to be greased with lard to keep them suitably styled, which then attracted lice, fleas, and other vermin—scratch, scratch!

After Europe survived the ravages of pervasive illness (caused in part, no doubt, by all that infested wiggery), the trend in pallidity was considered passé. For people whose pasty skin made them appear unwell, heavy make-up could provide a healthy glow. During the French Restoration of the eighteenth century, red rouge and lipstick were the rage, even amongst men, suggesting a frivolous, fun-loving spirit. By the nineteenth century, zinc oxide became the main component of facial powder, replacing the more deadly mixtures of the past. However, the Victorians naively still continued to use other poisonous substances for eye shadow (lead and antimony sulfide), lip reddeners (mercuric sulfide), and drops to make one's eyes sparkle (belladonna, or deadly nightshade).

The modern era has brought a slew of beauty product changes, from white lips and Egyptian-style eyeliner to fantasy images painted on the faces seen on haute-couture runways to the sepulchral Goths and their cadaverous, vampiric features. Since the late 1970s, a wide range of colors have entered the make-up palette—blues, purples, and greens abound. The garish fluorescent fashions of the 1980s mimicked the frosted pastel lipsticks and wild-hued eye shadows of the then current gender-bending pop, rock, and punk music stars, or vice versa. Make-up today is a mélange of past modes with a new emphasis on the natural look. This natural look, paradoxically enough, has taken centuries of artificial face-painting to achieve!

In this, the twenty-first century, men and women dye their hair every shade of the rainbow. People flock to change their eye color with contact lenses, scurry in droves to whiten their teeth to eye-squinting brilliance, and I won’t even venture into the realms of elective plastic surgery, which, in my humble opinion, leaves many human beings looking stranger in appearance than any movie monster I’ve ever seen.

Yup, it seems we’ll do just about anything to stay the ravages; we’ll go to extremes, and few were more extreme than today’s subject, the sixteenth-century Hungarian countess, Elizabeth Bathory—the most prolific female serial killer in history’s inventory of infamy (at least according to the Guinness Book of World Records).

A cruel, sadistic, self-absorbed, and vain little creature, Liz discovered her own fountain of youth, bathing in blood—more specifically, bathing in the blood of innocent young maidens. She decimated those of the peasant and serving classes first, of course—after all, who cares about them? But then, as her source of raw material dwindled, she was forced to turn to other suppliers, this time plucking her flowers from the beds of the aristocracy.

Oops…

…shopping too close to home.

Unfortunately for Liz, the systematic disappearance of the blue-blooded daughters of friends, relations, and courtiers was noticed, and the ensuing scandal pulled the plug on Liz’s bloody basin. She and four of her accomplices were arrested. Those lowly partners in crime were soon found guilty and expunged from society by the flames of the pyre or the fall of an ax, but Liz, well, the courts really didn’t know what to do with her—her having that title and all, it could shine so badly on the nobility, don’t you know—so a compromise of sorts was found.

Countess Elizabeth Bathory was bricked up in her bedroom, with no further contact with the outside world save for a jailer who supplied her meager meals, slipped in through a crack left in the mortar.

It took her four years to die.

The number of girls the Countess led up the garden path to the grave has been calculated from as few as fifty to as many as six-hundred; the precise count of the bloodbaths will probably never be known. But Bathory’s legend lives on, she, the “Bloody Countess” or “Countess Dracula” has become the subject of biographies, novels, songs, plays, and movies, where she’s been portrayed by the diverse likes of horror cult idol Ingrid Pitt to French film icon Delphine Seyrig, even Paloma Picasso dabbled in gore in another cinematic resurrection. Julie Delpy has been Bathory’s latest screen incarnation as both star and director of La Comtesse, and a unique variant of her bloodstained self can be seen in the new movie, Snow White and the Huntsman, where the Evil Queen, in the luscious guise of Charlize Theron, sucks the breath of youth out of her female rivals and indulges in languid, viscous milk baths, while intoning, “Beauty is my power.” Bathory’s likeness is on t-shirts, backpacks, and mousepads; her name graces, ironically, a line of exotically-scented bath salts and gels; and she even has her own action figure, part of one toy company’s “Six Faces of Madness” collector’s series (I kid you not), where she has the dubious distinction of being the only woman in a gruesome group that includes Attila the Hun, Vlad the Impaler, Rasputin, Billy the Kid, and Jack the Ripper.

So, in the end, it looks like Liz really did discover the fountain of youth; she’s been rendered immortal, at least in popular entertainment and consumer commercialism, and you can almost picture her self-satisfied smile as she dips one big toe into her ensanguined tub, swirling it about, testing the temperature before submersing herself completely while humming:

Take care of all those charms
And you'll always be in someone's arms
Keep young and beautiful
If you want to be loved

Yes, keep young and beautiful
If you want to be loved
Boo-Boopie doo


Scot D. Ryersson's symbolic extension of the mythical Countess Báthory is wonderfully disturbing. Casting aside the tired Countess portrait, he reimagines her as objects -- in some ways, the very objects that her servants became ... that is, objects of her terror. By removing her humanity, Ryersson removes her power without erasing her fearsome presence. Certainly it is no less chilling nor more abstract than, if you will, looking at dabs of paint that congeal into a countenance, but its very abstraction invents a symbology for her, a transformation to "it"-ness -- like a Nazi swastika or radioactive warning become not part of a lexicography, but rather in their simplicity become their own unique presences with both participation and isolation from the world of symbols. Ryersson's bottle, bathtub foot, thorns, cameo, beads and ribbons represent the mundanity of terror, even as it remains the symbol of a myth.

                       —Dennis Báthory-Kitsz, composer, author, and descendant of Elizabeth Bathory - www.bathory.org