Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Observations on Art, The Muse

The muses of the ancients were divinities. In Greek mythology Apollonis, Cephisso, and Borysthenis were known as the three muses, the goddesses who were said to inspire works of art and literature. The word museum finds its root in the Greek word mouseion which was a place where these daughters of Apollo were worshiped. The mythological muses met their end in Dante's Devine Comedy which was inspired by his very earthly muse Beatrice Portinari who he claimed to have met when they were both 9 years old. From than on the muse has come to be known as an artist's source of inspiration, whether real or imaginary, and generally refers to a person who inspires an artist.

During the Renaissance the model for two of Raphael's most famous Madonnas was a Sienese baker's daughter named Margharita di Luti, who was probably Raphael's lover. In one of my favorite stories the painter Fra Filippo Lippi went in for a riskier muse relationship when he seduced a young nun named Lucrezia Buti and went on to live with her, using her as the model for several portraits including one of the Holy Mother. Renaissance muses were subordinate to their artists, bound to their sexual needs while the artists were free to do as they pleased.

Modern muses seem to be powerful and creative women in their own right like Georgia O'Keeffe who didn't just inspire photographer Alfred Stieglitz, but influenced the direction of his art as well. I could write all day about Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe, mutual muses and collaborators. They were in and out of each others lives and art for over two decades until Mapplethorpe's death from AIDS in 1989. People will debate till the end of time on whether Yoko Ono was good for John Lennon's music but nobody will ever debate the effect she had on him.

Than again artists and muses seem to traditionally take a toll on each other. Salvador Dalí's wife Gala shrewdly tortured her sex-averse and masochistic husband with her affairs and the dancer Suzanne Farrell, George Balanchine's astonishingly beautiful muse, married another dancer the day his divorce was finalized. Pablo Picasso met Marie-Thérèse Walter in Paris when she was 17 and immediately made her his mistress, sometimes having his chauffeur wait outside her school to pick her up and take her to the artist's studio where she modeled for countless paintings. Walter later bore him a daughter though he refused to marry her, and killed herself in 1977, four years after Picasso died.

So what do I think a muse is? Somewhere in the past or present is a person that comes back to you again and again in your thoughts and dreams. You may have barely known them or you may know them well but either way they left an indelible impression on you. I had a professor who used Carl Jung's animus when she described her muse and the idea works for me too. Jung described the animus as the unconscious male dominated part of the female psyche. In my professors description this core part of your being, part of your very soul, is projected to the other person and when you look at them you see its reflection. You want desperately to speak to it but find it impossible and so turn to the only language that works, your art.

In an LA Times article on the death of the muse UCLA sociology professor David Halle wrote, "The concept of the muse is part of the Romantic tradition and this is just not a romantic age.” I don't agree at all and I'll finish with the words that best sum it up for me.

Everything I did I did for you.


  1. What a wonderful piece of writing. Seriously I just learned something I did not get in 7 years of art school. Now if you could please write about to to find your Muse when you lose it. I seem to misplace mine too often.

  2. Thanks !!

    You never learned all this in art school? Well there wasn't exactly a class on the subject but I was lucky enough to have some professors who liked to wander off subject at times. Art History is just a funny field too, you can talk about almost anything. Fine Arts is too damn strict.

    As for finding that lost muse, I'm afraid your'e on your own with that one. I have no idea. Try putting a shot of tequila out on the porch overnight and see if it attracts her.