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The romantic perversion of the Muse

Always docile, always young, always naked muses.

Apollo and the Muses - Heinrich Maria Hess

I always loved reading about what drove people to create art. More often than not, I have found, unsurprisingly, that the book, painting or sculpture I was looking at was created by a man for his lover. 

The muse, as a symbol of inspiration, has persisted for thousands of years, dating back to classical Greek mythology. It has evolved throughout history, its manifestations providing insight into the way different cultures understand creativity. American novelist Francine Prose notes that every historical period “re-creates the muse in its own image,” a physical analogy by which we can define abstract concepts that encapsulate the artistic process. The female muse continues to be a romanticised preoccupation in the present day, with artists continually walking the thin line between inspiration and objectification. 

Although modern and historical conceptions of the muse differ due to the discursive nature of the notion, I have found that the hierarchy of attribution remains the same. The muse is always secondary, their passive contributions credited to being vessels of divine authority granted unto the author/artist. This dichotomy has led to an unbridgeable chasm opening up between ‘artist’ and ‘not artist’, one that is too well established to rewrite. The duality between the two doesn’t allow for speculation into the complicated relationship between a creator and their creative inspiration. In addition to this, gendered notions are inherent in the ideology of artistic production. The muse is reduced to a speechless enchantment, the epitome of all objectified women in western art. A parallel to the Solitary Male Genius, the muse is always docile, always young, always naked. 

A prevalent victim of the muse/artist paradigm is Zelda Sayre, better known in popular culture as Zelda Fitzgerald. She was the living prototype of the American flapper, the artist’s wife, the quintessential muse, the doomed woman. Her identity is immersed in the public persona her husband curated for her. The Fitzgeralds lived in a time where codes of masculinity and femininity were more defined, where gender disparities were commonplace. It was a time where Fitzgerald adored, oppressed, and victimised his wife in the name of inspiration. He used her likeness and her life for his content, took material from her letters and diaries, and forbade her from doing the same. 

Zelda’s status as the muse prevented her from drawing on her personal and married life for inspiration in her own writing, with Fitzgerald deeming her work “third-rate” and her need to use her life for content an authorial weakness that stemmed from her inferior gender. She did not need to create art, he believed, because she was art. 

It doesn’t matter how well retellings of Zelda’s life perform in the present day because the modernist ideology of the times in which the Fitzgeralds lived portrayed the professional creator as a nonpareil masculine storyteller, the defender of the arts against the feminine masses. Fitzgerald’s ideas of real art originated from a literary movement titled ‘High Modernism,’ a masculinist project intent on eradicating intellectual laziness and other forms of popularised culture codified as feminine. 

French sculptor Camille Claudel was the muse, lover, and model of Auguste Rodin. An accomplished artist herself, Claudel worked closely in Paris with female sculptors Jessie Lipscomb, Amy Singer, and Emily Fawcett to create bronze sculptures still admired today. 

There is a photograph of Claudel from 1899 wherein she is seen sculpting Perseus and the Gorgon. Claudel believed the piece to be a self-portrait, seeing herself in the severed head of the Gorgon. It’s thought to be a metaphor for her involvement with Rodin. Rodin, like Perseus, restricts her growth as an artist, as history paints the perpetrator as the hero, glorifying him for the basic act of enabling her artistic practice when art schools would not accept female students. The picture and brief write-up accompanying it are amongst a small amount of readily available information about Claudel that doesn’t define her life in relation to Rodin’s or by her descent into madness. 

A new literary trend titled “muse lit” has recently been popularised by people who are adamant on righting historical wrongs. The genre aims to reclaim the forgotten portions of famous figures we thought we knew well, with multiple retellings and reimaginations following the lives of well-known muses such as Beatrice Portinari, Fanny Brawne, Ellen Ternan, and Maude Gonne. 

Such retellings distort the thin line between fact and fiction in biographical representation. The popularity of the genre proves that, despite their proliferation, we cannot quell our desire for more, for more works that offer better explanations of muses, of women, of concepts previously unexplainable. With these retellings come feminist perspectives that provide us with the benefit of hindsight; though we cannot forget that the original idea of the muse relies on the objectification of women and their position in a gendered hierarchy. We look at these women from historical vantage points, observing the staging of power fantasies rather than the rendering of the history of creation. 

The problem, I think, is not the concept of the muse itself or its place in the history of the world, as problematic that in itself may be. The authors of “muse lit” cannot erase the power dynamics that have been the building blocks of our understanding of artistic creation and pseudo-accurate representation of gender across different historical periods. Merely putting the woman at the centre of the story and having it revolve around her, but this time where she has autonomous agency, does not fix all that has been wrong in the past.

This is the curse of the female muse: they are doomed forever to be viewed through the prism of the men in their lives. We live in a time where women are capable of being great artists. Still, the history of art is littered with women upon whom the status of the muse has been bestowed, the word weighing them down to the depths of alcoholism and poor mental health.

A 21st century hybrid of the concept can be found in the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope. The ways women are oppressed in the present day are, by comparison, subtler. Film critic Nathan Rabin, the man who coined the term, originally meant for the phrase to refer to a fantastical woman who would play into the male fantasy of being saved from depression and ennui, disappearing immediately after he is whole again, only to be seen and heard from when she is required. 

Women are socialised to internalise the idea of being lesser than men, of being their saviours, their muses. They do not exercise ownership over their experiences, patriarchal storytelling practices reflecting real-life customs of lopsided power dynamics. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is not only a trope, but every woman who has ever been told she has inspired third-rate poetry about heartbreak. 

We need to bury the figure of the muse in favour of a more honest understanding of the way women play a role in artistic creation. Being an artist does not have to be, nor has it ever genuinely been, a solitary process. Human beings are always drawing on nuanced forms of inspiration from their surroundings, their lovers, their companions. There is no need for the naked woman with a satin sheet draped loosely around her, for the manic pixie dream girl, for the depressed artist’s wife. Creation should not have roots in oppression and suffering, but build on healthy relationships that view all human beings as equally capable of being great.

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