Monday, 2 October 2017

UNPACKING THE MUSE AND EMBRACING THE BAGGAGE

SHE'S MY MUSE

BY: KATHLEEN LEW

Let’s start from the ground up.

Inheriting this column to write about museums publicly from a feminist perspective is exhilarating and terrifying. I’m unbelievably excited about “She’s My Muse,” as a museum goer, grad student, art-lover, feminist, Taurus—but I wanted to get to the bottom of what it really means to be a muse. Throughout my time at Musings, I aim to explore not only what “muse” means for me, but for women (all that category can possibly encompass + more), for intersectional feminists, and for museums.

Source.

Throwing it back to the very beginning, the Muses were the nine Greek goddesses who headed the arts. The ancient Greeks built shrines to the Muses to inspire transformations of thought and creativity. Guess what? These shrines were called museums. Lois Silverman writes about these mouseions in her book, The Social Work of Museums. She describes them as community spaces that fostered social change and honoured both conversation and reflection. Despite these women being mythical, and the museums themselves likely male-dominated, the idea of the word "museum" being attached to powerful female figures is a mighty nice thought.

The word "muse" later came to represent someone’s creative spirit, or a real person that an artist found inspiring. Muses as objects of inspiration brought real women into the art world, despite artists’ continuous attempts to keep them on the canvas. For the Romantic genius, muses provided comfort and creativity while they separated themselves from the rest of the world, tormented by the burden of their talent (*sigh*). 

Sir John Everett Millais, Ophelia, 1851-2, Tate Britain, Model: Elizabeth Siddal. Source.

An extremely compelling art historical example of this is the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 19th century England. The brotherhood had a group of muses that they welcomed into their social circle for artistic and sexual relationships. They would paint these women as figures from literature and from the past, positioning them as passive (aka sickly, dying, or silent). 

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Beata Beatrix, 1870, Tate Britain, Model: Elizabeth Siddal. Source.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Elizabeth (Lizzie) Siddal had a particularly dramatic tale. Rossetti painted Siddal as Beatrice, a figure from poetry who died from a drug overdose. Mid-painting, Siddal mirrored her image and tragically died from an overdose as well. This panicked Rossetti into believing it was his fault, ultimately feeding his poetic fantasy. Rossetti destroyed every photograph of Siddal except his own drawings of her, claiming ownership over her image. He buried his poems with her body, only to dig them up 7 years later. 

Elizabeth Siddal, Self Portrait, 1853-1854 Private Collection. Source.

What is more interesting than Rossetti’s quest to own both Siddal’s image and body, is the pursuit of information about these muses as living women and artists. Unsurprisingly, muses were women who did not spend their lives dying in paintings. To separate Siddal from her myth, feminist historians have studied how Lizzie was an artist in her own right. She was the only woman to exhibit with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and she utilized the social circle to improve her artistic skills. Her self-portrait is a stark contrast to Rossetti’s Beata Beatrix, depicting a mature and anxious woman with an active gaze. 

 Pablo Picasso, The Weeping Woman, 1937, Tate Modern, Model: Dora Maar. Source.
Diego Rivera, Dancer Resting, 1939, Museo Dolores Olmedo, model: Maudelle Bass Weston. Source.

Everyone is familiar with these women. Their images are ever present on the walls of museums, but their names and stories are often forgotten. Picasso’s Weeping Woman is Dora Maar, a photographer who was watching the violence of the Spanish civil war unfold. Manet’s Olympia is Victorine Meurent, a model and performer. Diego Rivera’s Dancer Resting is Maudelle Bass Weston, a prominent African American dancer and cultural figure in Los Angeles. These are only a few of the muses that live on the walls of museums.
The above tweet documents the National Museum of Women in the Arts' #FreshTalk4Change, where Allison Gass speaks to Judy Chicago about amplifying women’s voices through art. This past September's event was a museum muse that stuck with me (even just watching it unfold online), as women joined together to meditate on feminist work and discuss change. Source.

So, what does it mean to search for museum muses today?

It means finding the lives behind the paintings on museum walls, and telling their stories. It means asserting agency as muses and as women for our own creative endeavors. In the context of this column (and life hopefully), it means re-claiming the muse as inspiration. The muse is more than an object of male creativity. It is a group of inspiring women artists and professionals who make socially conscious work, and push for change in the museum world.

I want “She’s My Muse” to be a space that is open, creative, intersectional, challenging, and loving.  Hopefully along the way we will find some great gifs, see some cool art, learn from each other, and work to make room for others.

With that, let's find some museum muses.

References:

Becker, Edwin, Julian Treuherz, and Liz Prettejohn. 2003. Dante Gabriel Rossetti. New York: Thames & Hudson

Bradley, Laurel. 1992. “Elizabeth Siddal: Draw into the Pre-Raphaelite Circle.” Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies 18(2): 136-145, 187. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4101558.

Silverman, Lois. 2010. The Social Work of Museums. London: Routledge.

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