Muses: Women Who Inspire

by Nicholas Mancusi

Muses: Women Who Inspire by Farid Abdelouahab. Translated from the French by David Radzinowicz. Paris: Flammarion, S.A., 2012. 236 pages, $49.95

"Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story," the narrator famously exhorts in Robert Fitzgerald’s translation of The Odyssey, and the muse must have sung indeed, at length and in detail, in order to sustain her conduit through the entire telling of such a long and colorful tale. The muse herself, though, is never heard from, or in fact even referred to much at all, once the artist (Homer, in this case) is well underway. And so it has gone largely ever since, along the history of male artists and the women they seize on: the artist remembered as a genius, and the muse remembered, if at all, for her beauty, perhaps her ability to enchant, and little more.

In Muses: Women Who Inspire, art historian and curator Farid Abdelouahab tells the stories of twenty-seven women who captured, dominated and dictated the creative impulse of some of history’s most legendary artists, paired with images of the women and some of the art made in their tribute. Abdelouahab’s goal is largely to do justice to the muses as human beings, where enough information exists to provide the proper background. Even though some of them became quite famous in their own right (Picasso’s Dora Maar, Man Ray’s Lee Miller), the lore and inherent objectification that surrounds objects of art can only weaken the public’s ability to consider them as agents in their own right.

The trope of muse and master is, of course, fraught with a kind of sexual idolatry that modern artists might hesitate to co-sign (the muse being so often depicted as quite literally up on a pedestal), but Abdelouahab strives to do justice to these women as fallible humans, with their own motivations, ambitions and inner lives, rather than the porcelain ideals of their artistic representation. Although the subtitle is Women Who Inspire, Abdelouahab makes the case that to be a muse requires something more than physical beauty or external attractiveness; something like a kind of inspiration of their own, an unexpressed longing or incompleteness that draws the artist to it like an archeologist to a site of hidden wonders, so that they might give expression to what they see within the muse, rather than merely what the muse makes them see within themselves.

But what also lurks at the margins of a book that strives largely to be pleasant is an examination of obsession and ruination. Take, for example, one of the book’s most interesting episodes, that of Virginia de Castiglione, a nineteenth-century Italian courtesan who so enraptured every man who laid eyes on her that she was sent by the upper echelons of the Italian polity to the court of Napoleon III, on a mission of what basically amounted to state-sponsored prostitution, in order to promote and support the burgeoning unity of her homeland. Her penchant for scandal and affairs spoiled her chances of being an effective diplomat. But the prodigious attention she received—one witness described her bosom as "a challenge to all womanhood"—stoked her ego to such heights that, for the rest of her life, she would become her own muse, embarking on what Abdelouahab calls an "egocentric artistic monologue," a grand project of self-documentation that she hoped would one day earn her the title "The Most Beautiful Woman of the Century." As painting was seemingly incapable of capturing the nuances of her beauty to her satisfaction, she directed her photographer, Pierre-Louis Pierson, to capture her in elaborate costumes and poses, and to show most parts of her body. Caught in a whirlpool of narcissism, vanity and self-fetishism, she lived out her life alone, suffering from depression and a persecution complex. Several of her haunting images are provided in the book.

What we can take from her story is perhaps a distillation of why so many of these stories end poorly for both parties. It might be that the flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long, but there is a further cautionary note: objectification implies eventual disappointment, and searching too far outside of oneself or investing too much of oneself in another person cannot completely quell internal disquiet, especially when the equation is imbalanced from the start. When an artist decides that his work or inspiration is entirely dependent on someone else, then his doom is sealed. And when a muse is taught to believe that only someone else can give her spirit proper expression, then she, too, must eventually face a crisis of self.

As an object of physical art itself, the book is surely impressive. Handsomely bound in black, the book occupies a nice middle ground between a regular-sized book and the unwieldy, monolithic coffee table books that are almost as large as coffee tables themselves. It would be at home on a shelf or on display. Although the many full-page images are striking and make for an enjoyable flip-through experience, the information in this book is certainly worth a proper read, and not just a casual glance. The small biographies themselves are well-researched and generally engaging, told in deft, empathic prose. But it’s the pairing of the stories with the well-chosen and richly rendered images that gives the book its real impact, and readers with romantic hearts, of either gender, will easily see how these women came to capture their artists and inhabit that work.

We are divorced from quality images in modern days. A Google search can instantaneously produce perhaps the totality of photographs taken by Man Ray of his favorite subject and obsession, Lee Miller, each image in its own little two-inch window on your computer screen. After an examination of the top hits, you might even be fooled into thinking that you have seen her in the way that Ray intended. But there is simply no substitute for holding a large, glossy photo in your hand, with the weight of a book behind it. This reviewer would submit that, even when tablet and e-reader technology becomes large enough to serve as a viable option to replace art books in addition to novels, there will always be something more special about the physicality of an actual object, one that cannot be transmogrified into another image with the brush of a finger.

Some of the muses receive twenty-page chapters, while others receive little more than a few paragraphs; this slightly disharmonious note to the book’s structure is surely a function of the fact that very little is known about many of these women. But rather than a mere collection, the stories presented here coalesce to produce something greater than the sum of the parts: a map of the dangers and wonders that exist at the treacherous, turbulent and beautiful intersection of art and love.

American Arts Quarterly, Winter 2013, Volume 30, Number 1