Woman as the Art not the Artist

Kate Moss in an advertisement for Calvin Klein Obsessed Perfume

Welcome to Part 5 of this series exploring the story behind my poem “Muse” which looks at the positioning of women as the art not the artist and the contemporary interpretation of the female muse. You can read the full version of the poem in Part 1 of the series or listen to the soundcloud link above.

At the beginning of the final stanza I explore the different female archetypes that women are measured against. By listing them, I want to emphasis how contradictory and reductive these pillars can be. I go on to list some of our more modern female muses such as Bridgette Bardot, Marilyn Monroe, Princess Diana, Kate Moss, Princess Katherine. I refer to them as muses because their images are imprinted in the public’s psyche and they have come to embody certain female archetypes.

Working our way through the list we have Kate Moss who gave birth to the phenomena that was the super waif, becoming the poster girl for waif-like skinny bodies in the media. This and her chameleonic qualities made her a darling of the fashion industry. She could be used as a beautiful blank page to write upon. In contrast, we move on to Marilyn Monroe and Brigitte Bardot, arguably two of the most iconic curvy blonde actresses.

Princess Diana, who also became a muse for certain designers, was called upon to be the picture perfect Royal poster girl. Many would say that it was the public’s unquenchable thirst for her image that lead to her untimely death. Now, with Katherine we have royal poster girl mark two. There to inspire the nation, feeding into our worst Nationalistic ideals all whilst looking perfectly presented for the camera. It is her smile we are interested in not her words. Initially there was an attempt to present Katherine as the humble middle class girl next door, despite her millionaire parents and private school education. Perhaps using this was a PR ploy to make the Royal Family seem more accessible or modern somehow?

Bridgette and Marilyn belong to a certain subset of women in Hollywood, the “Blonde Bombshells”. Their highly cultivated images often became highly limiting in part due to restrictive contracts with studios. These women presented the world with certain beauty standards that not even they could maintain (or in some cases obtain) without great effort or even pain. As well as the obvious layers of make-up, restrictive clothing and footwear and regular bleaching of hair, Monroe had surgery on her chin and nose.

Many of these “blondes” were shackled to limiting and often exploitative contracts with film studios, which insisted they didn’t swerve from their decided and cultivated look or casting, in many ways living in a gilded cage. Transitioning from a person to a concept. “She is “a Marilyn” type”. There are many people who have never even seen a film with Marilyn in it but have the image, the symbol that is Marilyn, embedded in their conscious.

Is it a coincidence that many of these “blonde bombshells” died young? There are famous cases of drug overdoses, whether it be intentional or accidental. Or there are the shocking homicides, like that of actress Sharon Tate in 1969 or actress and “playboy bunny” Dorothy Stratton in 1980. Dorothy Stratton was murdered by her estranged, jealous husband Paul Snider. He was said to have been a Svengali like figure in her life. This perhaps links further to the idea that by cultivating a woman’s image, you are indeed trying to take possession of that image and in turn the woman herself. When the ownership of this person is threatened, this can lead to violent results.

Left: Girl with a Bamboo Earring by Awol Erizku | Right: The Girl with a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer

In my poem Muse, I mention The Girl with a Pearl Earring, a painting so wrapped in mystery that no definite conclusion has ever been reached when it comes to its model’s true identity. This iconic Dutch painting inspired the creation of Awol Erizka’s Girl with a Bamboo Earring in 2009, replacing the white girl with a black model. Through his work one of the things he achieves is drawing attention to the absence of black women in the history of art, or at least what is presented to us in museums and art galleries.

Leading on from the previous point, it is hard to miss the fact that all the women I actually named on the list are white. This in itself says a lot about what we hold up to be icons of beauty in our Western culture. We see how these poisonous ideals have an effect on society whether it be through overt racism, lack of representation in the media, othering or colourism . It is this sense of otherness, or our worth being linked to an arbitrary colour spectrum, that allows us to ignore, or even perpetrate, dangerous acts of injustice or psychological, emotional and physical violence. At the same time, this does not mean that black women’s bodies have not been fetishized. Some may argue that the bodies of this group have been, and continue to be, even more fetishized than those of their white counterparts. However, they have often been left nameless in Western artworks, encouraging the viewer to see them as objects without an inner world, perhaps thanks to a toxic concoction of racism, sexism and colonial attitudes.

Weeping Woman by Pablo Picasso

‘You’re my Picasso and I’m your weeping woman.” (quote from my poem Muse)

Picasso was famous for his artwork, infamous for his long list of lovers come muses. Some of the beginnings of these relationships were very dark. Picasso along with his friend the poet, Guillaume Apollinaire, actually kidnapped young artist, Irene Lagut, brought her to a villa in the suburbs of Paris and attempted to keep her captive.

The painting Weeping Woman itself is a portrait of his 7 year muse, Dora Marr, crying. It seems that this painting was more apt than you might think. Picasso’s treatment of Marr was often cruel, pitting her against his previous muse, Marie-Thérèse Walter. Two women, degrading themselves in order to compete with each other for the male gaze is an example of internalised misogyny in action. Perhaps Picasso’s conduct was one of the factors that led to Marr’s nervous breakdown.

Arguably, one of Picasso’s most scathing critiques, when it came to his treatment of the women in his life, came from his own granddaughter, Marina Picasso, “He submitted them to his animal sexuality, tamed them, bewitched them, ingested them, and crushed them onto his canvas. After he had spent many nights extracting their essence, once they were bled dry, he would dispose of them.”

Anita Ekberg in a still from Federico Fellini’s film “La Dolce Vita”

“I’m dancing in an Italian fountain but not carved into an American mountain and I’m seeping, weeping, bleeding, silently screaming through the bars of my gilded cage. And the words. Fall. Out.” (Quote from Muse)

Here I am emphasising the limitations of the muse. You can be the “perfect” poster girl like Anita Ekberg in Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita”, your image weaved into the fabric of pop culture, but will your words or even your name be remembered? Interestingly, it was this film that birthed the modern word Paparazzi, thanks to the lead character’s ever present colleague Paparazzo, the photographer. Then we have Mount Rushmore, a celebration of American identity; white men’s images blasted into a mountain, on land illegally seized from indigenous Americans. By conjuring up the image of Mount Rushmore, I wanted to contrast the fixation on the woman’s body with these men’s heads and more importantly the contents of them, their thoughts, opinions. Will recent political events change this?

In the final line, I wanted to bring us back to our original springboard, Pygmalion. The idea of physical beauty being linked to perfection. What happens when the muse is no longer silent. Can that perfection be maintained? What happens when the muse finds the pen, the paintbrush, the voice? Was it her silence that enabled her “perfection”?

If you enjoyed this article please give me a follow and check out the rest of the Muse series. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below. And join me next week for the breakdown of my poem Time Travellers when I talk about gravity, wormholes, long distance relationships and the “older woman”!

Irish actress, singer-songwriter, eejit and poet. Often found turning films into musicals with my girl gang Notflix:The Improvised Musical.