Decoding The Myth Of The Muse In Popular Culture
99% of the time, a muse is female, becoming "realized" only in relation to something else. From Greek mythology to modern art to Instagram influencer culture, the concept has endured and evolved.
Marianne Faithfull. Patti Smith. Edie Sedgwick. Names so deeply entrenched into Western cultural psyche, often just a first name will suffice. Most articles would bestow these women with the title of ‘muse’ — I know I have. A status symbol of sorts, this word has penetrated pop culture for decades. Be it a title of a song, painting or prose. 99% of the time, a muse is female, becoming “realized” only in relation to something else – through someone else’s lens. I’ve always thought the concept actually quite romantic and aspirational. How lovely to be an artist’s muse! But by labeling people this are we tarnishing someone’s individual genius? Hijacking the muse’s own personhood?
The earliest origins of the muse appear in Greek mythology (unsurprisingly). In Hesiod’s poem, Theogony, they are the daughters of Zeus and his lover Mnemosyne (who represents memory); goddesses of literature, science, and the arts. Hesiod writes: “they plucked and gave me a rod, a shoot of sturdy laurel, a marvelous thing, and breathed into me a divine voice.” In summary: woman inspires, man creates.
This text was written around 700 B.C. I’d suggest this description has actually changed very little. Throughout history, it’s been near impossible to disconnect the muse from the patriarchal gaze.
Recently I saw a preview of Nick Broomfield’s Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love (released in UK cinemas on July 26th): a documentary about the relationship between Leonard Cohen and his Norwegian lover Marianne Ihlen. The film chronicles their love story, beginning on the sun-drenched, shimmering Greek island of Hydra in 1960, during an era of free love and open marriage. I cried. Uncontrollable sobs. Personally, I thought it was a poetic and moving film and fellow Leonard Cohen fans will delight in rarely seen footage – of which I am not about to spoil.
Marianne, for the most part, appears comfortable in her role as the muse in a more traditional sense. The biopic does not shy away from this. In Greece, amongst a bohemian community of international artists, writers and musicians – she declares quite simply that unlike Cohen, she is “not an artist.” Instead, she is more an outsider looking in; a cheerleader of the scene; adding fuel to the fire of other people’s creativity. “Life was my art,” she remarks as a way of some form of explanation.
The focus is more on the attempt to fill in the gaps of the master creator, Leonard Cohen. Interpret his life, music, and magic through his lovers: like a key to a treasure chest. We delve deeper into these epic romantic chapters which inspired hits from So Long, Marianne to Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye.
Did being Leonard Cohen’s lover handicap her own creative potential? Was it a label she resented in the post-Cohen years of her life (their romantic relationship ended in the late 60s)? Who knows. It comes across as though her intellect was based upon her inspiring others to run free with their pursuits.
Being labeled a male artist’s muse defines you as a satellite. The artist at the center, the muse a moon trapped in orbit. When I spoke with Rose McGowan earlier this year, she felt the term damaging: it ignores women’s agency. The muse’s value throughout the ages is more often than not placed on her beauty.
“To reduce someone to just a ‘muse’, I find that terminally sexist,” Rose says. “When I was going out with Marilyn Manson (in the late 90s), I got ‘you’re his muse’ a lot and it sounded like intellectual property to me. It’s like you’re sitting there, looking out a window with someone making their art because they are so inspired by you. But that is not how it is.”
“It’s a mentally collaborative process just existing together as humans,” Rose adds. “You’re not just a walking muse, you are a person, and it is really hard to reconcile that because it’s not real.”
The muse has long been constructed in art history as a passive figure, possessing a quiet divinity. Akin to a decorative object. Lee Miller and Man Ray; Picasso and Dora Maar; Gala Diakonova and Salvador Dali. The Barbican Art Gallery’s exhibition last year, Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-garde, tried to readdress the balance by showcasing the creative output of over 40 artist couples.
The other day I spotted a picture on Lena Dunham’s Instagram, she is wrapping her arms around Kate Moss at the Serpentine Gallery’s annual summer party. “The artist finally meets the muse,” she quips. Dig a little deeper – or simply swipe to the next picture – she’s being dead serious. In her spare time, the Girls producer, director, actress, and writer finds it healing to paint the likes of Mia Farrow, Mariah Carey to Kate Moss. She describes herself as a “passionate watercolor hobbyist” whose favorite subjects are “complicated women.”
I love that. It feels more authentic to explore the messiness of a person than to be defined by the portrait itself. To be shaped by life experiences, rather than who you’ve slept with.
This static idea of the muse is changing and re-evaluated beyond the sphere of influence they had on their lover’s work. When the young French photographer and painter Dora Maar (1907–97) took up with Pablo Picasso in 1936, she was a rising star in the Surrealist circle. Picasso made countless paintings of Maar, immortalizing her is masterpieces such as the Weeping Woman.
“All (Picasso’s) portraits of me are lies,” Maar told the US writer James Lord. “They’re Picassos. Not one is Dora Maar.” To describe her primarily as a subject in someone else’s work is damagingly one-dimensional. It also ignores other facets of Maar’s being and artistic CV.
In November, Tate Modern will present the first UK retrospective of Dora Maar’s work, from a career spanning more than six decades. Featuring over 200 works, including commercial commissions, social documentary photographs, and paintings – key aspects of her practice which have, until now, remained little known.
Today, many people are using themselves as muses. Early adopters from Cindy Sherman (currently exhibiting at the National Portrait Gallery) to Tracy Emin, hail from the art school of “me, myself, and I.” You can even suggest the influencer phenomenon is a modern form of musehood. Reclaiming control over how she is represented, her sensuality, rather than being understood through the prism of someone else’s representation.
“It’s not quite enough to just capture another’s image and call it your own,” Los Angeles-based painter Vanessa Prager says. Vanessa’s semi-sculptural portraits of women aim to explore the complex, ever-changing quality of identity. Their bodies often morph into other bodies and objects on the canvas. “We are multi-faceted,” she says. “I look to people – both real and imagined – who inspire me with their confidence, unique spirit or insecurities.”
Fashion has long had a love affair with the muse. The surrealist artist and model to Man Ray, Meret Oppenheim, served as a foundation for London-based designer Eudon Choi’s autumn/winter 2019 collection. Oppenheim famously refused to be known as a ‘female artist’, as she saw no need to differentiate between male and female-created art. Eudon wanted to draw on her playful yet powerful sense of self.
“Her work touched on the subjugation of women and the duality of existence,” Eudon explains. “As a designer, I found that strong women often inspire me. I really liked her background; she began her career as a model but then got involved in surrealist art.”
Trying on the deconstructed tailored pieces that make up the body of the collection, it was a beautiful sartorial tribute to the artist. Celebrating her femininity, toughness, provocative artworks and independent nature all at once. It allows the life of the muse in and disseminates it along with the visual identity.
“Now more than ever the story behind images are told and shared along with the imagery,” according to Prager. “This makes the story deeper – more truthful.”
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