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  • Arts & Culture
  • Issue 36

The Vacant Muse

Words by Rebecca Liu.
In Ancient Greece, the nine Muses were goddesses who inspired artists to complete their work. Today, the figure of the muse is still shrouded in an other-worldly aura: from Dora Maar to Margot Robbie, the women who “inspire” artists are often treated as blank canvases primed to channel the creativity of others. Rebecca Liu goes behind the scenes at the studio.

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 public display. “For too many centuries women have been busy being muses,” Anaïs Nin wrote in her 1976 essay, “The New Woman”: “In the letters I’ve received from women, I’ve found… a guilt for creating. It’s a very strange illness, and it doesn’t strike men—because the culture has demanded of man that he give his maximum talents.”

Look to the origins of the muse in Greek mythology, and its gendered dimensions are hard to ignore. The original Muses were the nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory. As ancient deities of song, dance and memory, the nine Muses gave artists the inspiration needed to complete their work. Writers such Hesiod and Homer called upon them for guidance. In the opening lines of The Odyssey, Homer says, “Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story of that man skilled in all ways of contending, the wanderer, harried for years on end.”

The notion of the artist’s muse has been carried down from the Greeks to the modern day. But now muses are more often associated with mortal women, rather than mythic gods. Pablo Picasso was famously inspired by his partners: The most recognized of his muses, Marie-Thérèse Walter, became the mistress of the artist, then 45, when she was 17. Walter was cheerful and athletic in real life, her granddaughter recounted in an interview with Artsy: “Curiously, such attributes depart from the usual image of Marie-Thérèse as she appears in Picasso’s paintings: as a reclining or, most often, sleeping muse.” The active, exciting lives of his muses were erased on the canvas, rendered passive by the artist’s brush. Other Picasso muses were artists in their own right, including surrealist photographer Dora Maar (also model to photographer May Ray) and Françoise Gilot, who wrote about her difficult relationship with the often abusive painter in her 1990 memoir, Life With Picasso.1 In it, she remembers, “He was rather fond, also, of saying, ‘For me there are only two kinds of women: goddesses and doormats.’” Elsewhere, he told her, “Women are machines for suffering.”

Picasso was not alone in associating inspiration with a tortured, passive form of womanhood. Andy Warhol said of his muse, American actress Edie Sedgwick, that “she had more problems than anyone I’d ever met,” describing her as having “a poignantly vacant, vulnerable quality… She was a wonderful, beautiful blank.” Sometimes it is not suffering, but rather the naive, empty goodness of muses that inspires artists. Responding to recent criticisms of Margot Robbie’s lack of dialogue in his latest film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, director Quentin Tarantino said that Robbie’s character, Sharon Tate, “is an angelic presence throughout the movie… to some degree, she’s not in the movie, she’s in our hearts.”

These famous cases all involve a female muse inspiring a male artist. There are notable exceptions: French painter Berthe Morisot was inspired by her husband, Eugène Manet, and “mutual muse” couples exist: Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, and Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz among them.2 But the power dynamics associated with the muse as it is popularly understood—a vehicle for someone else’s creativity—feel inextricable from traditional gender inequalities that subordinate women to the creativity of men. In this schema, women are rewarded not so much for being well-rounded voices unto themselves, but resplendent vehicles for those of others.

“The central issue with the concept of the muse is that it mystifies the actual social conditions of art-making, the dynamics of power and privilege in it,” says Allison Deutsch, Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in the Department of History of Art at Birkbeck, University of London. “This slippage between muse as allegorical figure, and muse as living model, creates all sorts of problems. It collapses a complex relationship between two people, both engaged in forms of labor, into the stuff of mystery and fantasy, pleasure and peril—where nobody is really working.” These very questions of who gets to make work and who is merely seen to inspire it has emerged in a recent controversy concerning the Japanese model Kaori, former muse and collaborator to prolific photographer Nobuyoshi Araki. In a blog post published two years ago, Kaori spoke of the bullying and exploitation she experienced in their relationship—but also crucially took issue with what she saw as her erasure in the photographer’s legacy. “In the world of art, the lives of muses are mythologized and made into beautiful and tragic tales,” she writes. Being a muse to one of the nation’s most famous artists, however, brought her little economic or social power. “After being a model for 16 years, I had built nothing. I had nothing,” she says.

“Could we approach the objects of artists’ inspirations not as voiceless,
mythic essences, but as rich collaborators in their own right?”

American poet and author Kelley Swain worked as an artist’s model across the US and Europe for 10 years, and reflected on her experiences in her 2016 memoir, The Naked Muse. For Swain, being an artist’s model had little to do with the glossy, mythic tragedy often attached to the muse. It was, rather, work. “I kind of just fell into modelling,” she remembers, “because a friend who was doing it for an art class needed a substitute. It was very interesting to me because I had always wanted to study a bit more about art… so I was getting paid to sit in on art classes, basically.”

Rather than feeling like these artists were “translating” her spirit, Swain could see paintings about her from a cooler distance: “That’s not you, but it’s you as captured by someone.” Her personal experiences have been overwhelmingly positive, and this sense of equality between artist and model means that it was “fun,” rather than stressful, “to be depicted as different characters.” For Swain, modeling has taught her something about herself, too: “It was a wonderful intellectual exercise for me… I’m so often in my head and it helped me to be more in my body.”

Swain’s positive experiences as a model, and as someone who learns and grows alongside artists, points to a new way of making art, one based on mutual respect and equality. Could we approach the objects of artists’ inspirations not as voiceless, mythic essences, but as rich collaborators in their own right? Though the legends associated with the muse might indulge our romantic fantasies, it is worth asking what critical questions get lost in our drive to mythologize the artistic labor between two people. “We often talk of artists being inspired,” notes Deutsch, “but this, too, is vague and mysterious, and it elides matters of agency. Inspiration, even if it is tied to a so-called muse, seems also to come from nowhere. Instead, we might think about an artist’s sources or an artist’s influences.” Let the sleeping muse awaken, and from her renewed agency, our own approaches to the labor of art be a bit more enlightened.


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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