The Vacant Muse
The women who “inspire” artists are often treated as blank canvases. Rebecca Liu goes behind the scenes at the studio.

  • Words Rebecca Liu

In Ottessa Moshfegh’s recent hit novel My Year of Rest and Relaxation, the unnamed protagonist, a beautiful blonde misanthrope living in New York, induces a drug-filled hibernation that lasts four months. Her mission is supported by Ping Xi, a rising artist and longtime admirer, who periodically brings food and supplies to her apartment. In return, the protagonist allows him to make art about her. “The creative incentive for me is that you’ll be constantly… naive,” he tells her. While she sleeps, she imagines Xi’s paintings: “They were all ‘sleeping nudes,’ mussed beds and tangles of pale limbs and blond hair.”

Many common metaphors about the artist’s muse are made literal in this story. The artist’s inspiration—young, gorgeous, female—is tranquilized; she’s an object on which others project their fantasies. The artist—male, authoritative, voyeuristic—captures her essence, translating what is seen as ineffable about a woman’s personal spirit into pu...

1. In her memoir, Gilot writes about how she consented to live her life with Picasso on his terms. “At the time I went to live with Pablo, I had felt that he was a person to whom I could, and should, devote myself entirely, but from whom I should expect to receive nothing beyond what he had given the world by means of his art,” she writes.

2. Kahlo’s image has become iconic—reproduced everywhere from nail decals to socks in a phenomenon that has been termed “Fridamania.” Her popularity is partly motivated by the belief that she refused to subjugate herself to the male gaze. It’s telling that a quote from the artist Oroma Elewa—“I am my own muse. I am the subject I know best. The subject I want to know better,” is frequently misattributed to Kahlo.


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