Trigger Warning: Mention of Toxic Masculinity, Abuse and Suicide
Illustrated by Noor Sharma, Undergraduate Batch of 2023
The canvas wielder’s vanity creates a shadow that swallows the subject of its inspiration. She stays static on the canvas and nameless in reality. Her pain is a payment for artistic immortality, but only for the man who commits her to the scene. Confined within the paintings, she lives her life as a “muse” within collective memory.
However, is that all there is to her identity? Shouldn’t she have been someone in her own right?
To answer this, let us first glance at the very idea of a “muse”. Historically, a “muse” is a person who serves as an inspiration for an artist. This idea originates from Zeus’ daughters, the nine Muses in Greek mythology, goddesses of the arts, literature, and the sciences. They often descended from Mount Olympus to inspire artists and philosophers. In tandem with this lore, art history is often replete with such relationships (though earthly) between artists and their muses. Even within game-changing pieces of art, such as Olympia by Ѐdouard Manet, Victorine Meurent’s role as a model and muse is self-evident. The artistic endeavour inextricably links itself to the muse.
Most commonly associated with this process of the ideal and the aesthetic are women. As muses, they are gazed upon only as a form of “passive beauty”. Passive, because it appears as though they have no life projected outside of the painting. They are seen, but only as vessels through which male artists voraciously channel their creativity. The women on the canvas are omniscient in our art but forgotten as contributors. Olympia featured a nude, nonchalant Meurent and went against the social norms of the time, yet the creative impact that her depiction had is rarely attributed to her. It feels unnerving to see how even as the central subject of the painting, her form undergoes gross objectification. The gaze of the artist sticks and clings to the art and to the muse, making it into a searing brand rather than just an association.
Why do we then pedestalize the artist, idealize the art, yet condemn the women? Women who served as muses were skilled artists and creatives in their own right, yet they rarely ever fill the pages of mainstream art history. Meurent was the face of Olympia, but few know of her painting abilities. Her reputation eventually became synonymous with the “consort” rather than the “genius”. Patriarchal eclipses cloak the contributions of female creatives. Instead of offering the spotlight, the system relegates them to the background.
Along with this, the process of art creation itself for the muse can be excruciating and devaluing. Elizabeth Siddal, an artist and the model for John Everett Millais’ Ophelia, was made to sit in a tepid bathtub, heated by lamps, every day for four months as he painted the scene. This degradation is summed up best in Izdihar Afyouni’s words,“Female pain is fetishized, but never vindicated.”
Siddal painted picturesque scenes similar to her contemporaries, yet the very fact that she was only referred to as the “tragic muse”, is very telling of the ways in which we glorify the suffering of women. Apart from erasing her painful experience of the muse-artist relationship, this perception also took away her accomplishments as an individual.
This belittling and often mentally degrading work can also be mixed with aggressively toxic masculinity. Who better to look at in this regard, than Pablo Picasso, the father of cubism? He once said, “There are only two types of women: goddesses and doormats”. Françoise Gilot, an accomplished painter and one of Picasso’s six muses, equated Picasso’s treatment of his muses to a ‘Bluebeard Complex’ in her memoir, “Life With Picasso”. The public admired Gilot as she’s the only muse who successfully separated herself from Picasso. Two of his muses, Marie-Thérèse Walter and Jacqueline Roque, ended up taking their own lives. Picasso, became known for “using up” his muses and discarding them. At its very core, this perpetuates how women are objectified, serving only a utilitarian purpose for the man’s urge to create. The highly gendered nature of the dynamic makes the muse-artist relationship breeding grounds for targeted abuse. Picasso’s example is hence, a grave culmination of the erasure, fetishization and suffering that muses face.
Art, in its creation, has always been deeply political. However, these instances are also illustrative of how the gaze that creates and gets embellished within history can be deeply sexist. This gaze is nothing short of voyeuristic, barging into women’s lives, never from an accurate lens. Along with this, by making women only accomplished by association, we rid them of integral contributions they have made throughout history. In fact, had it not been for women taking control of their own narratives, the surrealist movement would not have been where it is today, with the likes of Frida Kahlo and Dorothea Tanning.
The gaze with which we approach the art we consume is also critical. Beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, and so does its interpretation. It is our responsibility that we seek to equally appreciate the story of the person inside the canvas rather than just the one behind.