A woman can be proud and stiff
When on love intent
But love has pitched his mansion in
The place of excrement.
From William Butler Yeats’ Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop
Crazy Jane has been a muse for writers from the 19th-century Scottish poet William Nicholson to superhero cartoonists and from Sylvia Plath to REM, but she is best known for her appearance in Yeats’ later poems as a mad, provocative and ferocious woman prone to obscenity.
Now an exhibition of 90 original paintings all inspired by the muse has been organised in Sligo. The series was chosen to mark Ireland’s obsession with those who were different or who lived beyond the pale, and it is featured as part of the Tread Softly festival, which celebrates the legacy of the Yeats family.
The series may also appeal to young readers, as the Crazy Jane figure has recently been revived in Doom Patrol, a DC Comics series about a group of misfits with superpowers, where Jane uses her multiple personality disorder to assume different magical abilities.
Featured in eight of Yeats’ poems, Crazy Jane was described as an isolated older women wrestling her belief in god with her history of sexual promiscuity. She was based on Mary Cusack, a neighbour of Yeats’ who was “a bit touched in the head”, according to Yeats’ wife George, who was believed to have known her best.
Mr Hamilton said that the creation of Jane in Yeats’ mind happened as he moved away from his romantic poetry to more radical ideas. “What I really love about Yeats is that the older he got, the most beautifully angry he became. He wanted to reform people’s ideas,” he said.
“If we go back in time, free women who spoke out were often described as mad, or portrayed like that, and Yeats himself even said this about Maude Gonne, his great love, in her later life.” Mr Hamilton said that some of the descriptions of Crazy Jane in the poems note that her breasts had fallen, her skin was frail and she was not to be mistaken with the wild women some artists use to portray fertility and youth.
“He gave us this image of a ranting woman whose beauty had faded, but she was one of the strongest female voices in all his works. I think Yeats wanted us to confront the image of a person saying anything they wanted and realise that it was just looking at a reflection of ourselve,” Mr Hamilton said.
The choice of basing an exhibition around Jane was made by Ms Hamilton,
who said that she felt Ireland was in an ideal place to consider her.
“These poems are not the kind of Yeats pieces that we learn
in school. He was challenging the authority of the church in a way
that was revolutionary at the time but is becoming more common now,”
One of the most prominent pieces in the exhibition, by Conor Walton, is based on Crazy Jane and the Bishop. Walton’s piece depicts a naked woman on her hind legs facing a shadowy figure of a bishop, and he said that he did not want to shy away from the raunchy elements in the poem, which imagines a conversation between Jane and a bishop in the road. “Yeats used the image of a woman to depict this idea of madness, but I don’t think that it is necessarily a purely feminist thing. I relate to this notion of being denied my passions for the sake of God. I think most of us do,” he said.
One of the other works was painted by Joe Dunne, a portraitist who was commissioned by the government to paint Eamon DeValera and Mary McAleese. His rendition of Jane is a nude woman lying on the grass.
Mr Dunne said he believed Yeats was trying to highlight that Jane was not crazy at all. “To me madness is not something that should be depicted as savage or menacing. Yeats always wanted to depict the whole person, and not one side of the other. If Jane is the normal one and it is only society sees her as crazy, then what does that make the rest of us? I think Yeats would have taken delight in presenting us with that riddle.”
The Crazy Jane exhibition will be on in the Hamilton Gallery until