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Ahead of the launch of ROSL’s latest exhibition, Muse, art historian Ruth Millington tells Abi Millarabout how she has been uncovering the hidden stories behind art history’s masterpieces.

When we think about an artist’s muse, a specific type of image may come to mind. Perhaps it’s the Girl with the Pearl Earring – the Vermeer muse fictionalised in film as the artist’s maid and mistress. Perhaps it’s Lizzie Siddal, the pre-Raphaelite model who appears, floating helplessly downstream, in Millais’ Ophelia. Perhaps it’s one of the many lovers Picasso immortalised on canvas.

Chances are, we’re thinking of a beautiful young woman who piqued the attention of a powerful male artist. It’s an uneasy image, reinforcing the kind of archaic sexual politics we generally hope society has grown out of. The myths around male creative genius, nourished by female sexual passivity, have undergone a long-due reckoning in recent years, to the point that we may shy away from using the word ‘muse’ at all.

“Accounts have been told, mainly by men, about the male artistic genius and how artists need a muse,” says Ruth Millington, art historian and author of the upcoming book Muse. “I think a lot of narratives picked up on this idea, and it’s been cemented in popular culture as well. The most problematic aspects for me are this idea that the muse is always a younger woman, she’s always submissive, she’s always passive. She’s chosen by the artist, and really, she has no agency.”

As Millington argues in her book, which is published by Penguin in April, these ideas are due a rethink. In reality, many muses were far more than models – they influenced the artists they worked with in multi-layered ways. Some gave emotional support, while others offered practical help, and many were unspoken contributors to the artists’ best ideas.

“The idea of the book is to reclaim the word from this stereotype of the passive, younger princess,” she says. “The main point I want to make is that muses have been active agents who have changed our history, and they have held huge influence over artists that they have collaborated with. I don’t think that story has been told enough.”

As Millington points out in her introduction, the original muses were far from passive objects. Quite the converse – they were Ancient Greek goddesses, who were framed in epic poems as divine forces of inspiration.

“You’ll have a poet and they’ll ask the Muses for help in telling us the story,” says Millington. “They’ll say, speak to me Muse, tell me the story, so they’re channeling the inspiration of the Muse through them. And there’s this idea that the Muse holds this power. By the time of Picasso, the concept of the muse as being a divine agent was flipped on its head, and instead became framed as something a great male artist possesses.”

The development of the myth, she says, was something of a ‘slow burn’ across time and history. Around the Renaissance, paintings of muses gradually changed from paintings of divine goddesses, to paintings of generic young women with their clothes falling off. By the time of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, artists began to take particular women as their muses, and by the 20th century the sexist perception of muse as model had really taken hold.

Even as the myth took shape, however, it was never truly representative of reality. The Girl with the Pearl Earring is more likely to have been the artist’s daughter than his mistress. Lizzie Siddal, the pre-Raphaelite muse, was an artist and poet in her own right, while Gustav Klimt’s muse Emilie Floge was a fashion designer who influenced his trademark style. 

“It’s likely she is the woman pictured in The Kiss with him,” says Millington. “They were companions for 25 years – she had a fashion store in Vienna that he used to go into, and she introduced him to all her fashions, as well as her clients who went on to become models and muses as well. She’s been written out of many narratives.”

As for Picasso, well, we can’t let his obvious predation slide, given that he referred to women as “either goddesses or doormats”, and started his affair with Marie-Therese Walter when she was just 17 years old. Hannah Gadsby put it best in her explosive 2018 standup show Nanette: “Our mistake was to invalidate the perspective of a 17-year-old girl because we believed her potential was never going to equal his.”

Even here, though, a compelling counter-narrative emerges if we look past Picasso’s self-mythologising and take his muses on their own terms. One of them, Dora Marr, was an accomplished commercial photographer and radical leftist who introduced the artist to her politics.

“Everybody knows Dora Marr as the Weeping Woman, and often that portrait is seen as symbolic of the ways Picasso treated women,” says Millington. “We tend to see pictures of muses as just as a straight reading of the romantic situation between an artist and a muse, but that painting is more about politics.”

Look closely at the Weeping Woman, and you will see small planes silhouetted in each of her eyes, alluding to the bombing of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War. Guernica, painted the same year, is another political protest painting, and Maar was heavily involved in its creation.

“Guernica is in black and white, and there’s even a light bulb at the top of the painting, which is exactly like one you’d find in a darkroom,” says Millington. “Dora Marr photographed the process of its creation, and she also found the studio for him to paint in. It was the headquarters to one of the political groups she belonged to.”

In a bid to foreground these kinds of stories, Millington’s book looks at 29 muses, from Renaissance times to the present day. She concludes with a manifesto for the muse, teasing out what the word might actually mean if we go beyond our preconceptions.

While we’re accustomed to thinking about romantic muses, the book draws our attention to the myriad forms the relationship can actually take. It is divided into seven sections: other artists as muse, self as muse, family muses, performing muses, romantic muses, muses who’ve inspired movements and muses who’ve been held up as political messages.

Each muse has his or her own story, pitched somewhere between biography and thinkpiece. In many cases, this means engaging with the big themes – race and sexuality as well as gender.

“Race particularly comes into the section on muses as messages,” says Millington. “I interviewed quite a few muses, including a Black performer from New York, and he was talking about how important it is for people like him to held up as muses. So throughout the book, there are concepts that hold it all together, but each muse has brought something very different to the relationship and also got something very different out of it.”

The idea for the book first emerged when Millington was commissioned to write an article about muses in art history. Already a prolific blogger, with a focus on overlooked narratives in art, she had always wanted to write a book, but needed a subject that was worth spending the time on. 

“In this article, I was told not to use the word muse – we called them art legends, rather than muses,” she recalls. “I had been researching the character of Ophelia, and this idea of maybe reclaiming her narrative, and had also written about the Girl with the Pearl Earring. I thought, there’s such a difference between how we see the muse in popular culture, and the truth behind it. So all these ideas came together and I thought, this is the book I’ve got to write.”

Drafted over the course of the pandemic, the book is an accessible and thought provoking read for anyone interested in art, or indeed human relationships. As well as poring through academic journals, Millington tried to find as much primary source material as possible – diaries, journals, letters between the artists and muses.

She also interviewed a number of contemporary artists and muses, including Lucian Freud’s muse ‘Big Sue’ Tilley, and the fashion photographer Tim Walker, who has worked with Tilda Swinton.

“He gave me an interview about their time together, taking photographs of the Mexican jungle,” says Millington. “I’d say all their stories are really surprising as well, because while we think of muses as being really serious, what came out through the book is that a lot of muses have had great fun being with the artist.”

The hardest chapter to write, she remarks, was the one on Frida Kahlo, who notoriously used herself as a muse. Here, the difficulty lay in saying something new when there had been so much ink spilled on the subject already.

“The interesting point for me was that she originally wanted to be a doctor,” says Millington. “She was on her way back from medical school when she was in that famous accident, which put her into bed for almost a year, and that’s when she started painting self-portraits. The angle I take in her chapter is that she’s acting as a sort of doctor, so looking at herself beneath the skin and trying to heal herself through art. I really enjoyed writing that chapter, although it was a struggle.”

Another favourite chapter concerns the contemporary Chinese-born photographer Pixy Lao, whose photo series Experimental Relationship (2007- present) concerns her relationship with her boyfriend, Moro. As well as being five years younger than Lao – something of a taboo in Chinese cultures – Moro is Japanese, leading to what Lao describes as a ‘love-hate relationship’.

“All the photographs of him are really playful, including one where he is dressed up as a piece of sushi on the bed,” says Millington. “I interviewed both of them, and they’re definitely playing with both gender expectations as well as ideas of culture and race. So that that was a really fun one to write and do interviews for.”

At the time of writing, Millington is working with ROSL on our upcoming Muse exhibition, timed to coincide with the publication of the book. The exhibition will showcase six illustrations by the Syrian artist Dina Razin, who illustrated the book, as well as Millington’s manifesto.

There will also be a selection of artists and muses from the book, including photographs of Francis Bacon’s unlikely muse George Dyer (an East End burglar), and photographs by Pixy Lao (including the one of Moro dressed as sushi on the bed). What is clear is that despite all the cultural baggage attached to it, ‘muse’ doesn’t need to be a dirty word.

“We’re reclaiming this idea of the muse as an active and empowered agent, so it’s a celebratory exhibition,” says Millington. “I think in the writing of this book, I realised how unbalanced narratives are in art history. There’s just so much that needs redressing, reclaiming and being retold.”

This article appears in the March-May 2022 edition of Overseas magazine (not yet online)

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