THE question of where art comes from and what impulse drives its creation had already gone unanswered for centuries when the Ancient Greeks finally put a name to it - nine names, in fact - and in doing so gave the Western world a concept that still prevails in our digital age:
that of the female muse.
If you're not up on your mythology, the Muses are the nine daughters of Zeus, ruler of Mount Olympus, and Mnemosyne, goddess of memory. Among the artistically inclined nonet are Calliope, Thalia and Terpsichore, whose domains are epic poetry, comedy and dance respectively. Their sisters oversee subjects as varied as history, astronomy and song, and in the old stories the girls like water and swans and own a horse called Pegasus.
Since then, history has offered up more flesh-and-blood examples of women who have played the role of muse, such as the pious, shadowy Laura, who was glimpsed in the Church of Sainte-Claire d'Avignon by priest-turned-Renaissance poet Petrarch and who inspired one of the most famous love poems ever written. Or Beatrice Portinari, with whom 13th-century Italian poet Dante Alighieri fell in love when she was eight and he was nine, and who would feature in The Divine Comedy and La Vita Nuova, his essay on courtly love.
But who are the 21st-century muses, inheritors of the mantle of Laura and Beatrice? And how does their "musedom" manifest itself in the post-feminist age, when on one hand the objectification of women is viewed as politically unacceptable and on the other teenage girls send topless "selfies" to their boyfriends?
Kate Moss may be a little earthier than her mediaeval sisters, hail from Croydon rather than Florence or Avignon, and be more inclined to shop than pray, but the model qualifies as a modern-day muse. A pretty face she certainly is, but through the act of being photographed, filmed and painted, she has also courted fame and become a powerful brand in her own right. Not for nothing does she have her own perfume, Vintage Muse (£10 at Superdrug). And not for nothing was a major sale of modern art at Christie's last week themed around this "remarkable modern muse" (their words) rather than around the artists who made the works, despite the list including Irving Penn, Herb Ritts and Annie Liebovitz. One work - Kate On The Couch, shot for a 1992 Calvin Klein campaign by Moss's then-lover Mario Sorrenti - went for a world-record price for that artist.
In 2002, Moss sat for Lucian Freud, one of the giants of 20th-century British art, but even then Moss's celebrity was such that viewers were left asking: is this more notable for being a painting by Lucian Freud or for being a nude portrait of Kate Moss? Sculptor Marc Quinn is another who has found the model alluring, twisting her into a yoga pose and casting her as a modern-day Aphrodite in a statue called Siren. It is made from 50kg of 18-carat gold, alone worth a cool £1 million. Factor in its subject, however, and the price tag at auction would far exceed that. Again, the Moss effect.
Moss's celebrity comes in large part from her work as a fashion model, of course, and in that field she is most commonly associated with Peruvian photographer Mario Testino. Interviewed for the catalogue of Portraits, a retrospective of Testino's work mounted at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh in 2002, Testino said of Moss: "I work around her beauty and for different pictures concentrate on different aspects of her personality, but in the end they are all Kate. She has so much imagination and such innate taste that there is always something new to discover."
For her part, Moss noted that when she works with Testino the creative energy "is travelling in both directions … I have grown up with him photographing me - we have grown up together in a sense. The trust between us means that we are free with each other, he doesn't trap me into a set way of being, we find the picture together."
Apparently a genuine collaboration, then. But is Testino actually an artist and are his photographs art? On one hand it's hard to justify the claim that he is and they are because much of his work is for commercial concerns - it's about selling a product, a fashion or an idea. Of the photographs of Moss featured in Portraits, most were for magazines - Vogue, The Face, Harper's Bazaar - or for companies like Burberry. Only one was labelled "personal work".
Testino himself makes no great claims for his being an artist either, though he was canny enough after photographing Lord Frederick Windsor as a rent boy astride a motorbike (a rare example of a male muse?) to say: "I do not believe I have taken any more liberties with his status than Van Dyck did with his forebears." Join the dots and that kind of makes him the Baroque master's modern-day equivalent, doesn't it?
Earlier this year, meanwhile, Moss was photographed by two other long-time fans, Mert Alas and Marcus Piggott. Known in the trade simply as Mert and Marcus, they're a Turkish-Welsh duo who live and work together in a 10-bedroom palace in Ibiza and are best viewed as the Gilbert and George of the fashion photography world. They shot Moss for what may be her most notable magazine cover yet: the 60th anniversary edition of Playboy, due to hit the newstands (if that's where you still buy Playboy) in December. "She's a worldwide celebrity and icon and crosses the boundaries from sexual imagery to upscale modelling," said the magazine's founder, Hugh Hefner, when news of the coup leaked out. "It's a natural for us."
This most recent entry on the CV cements Moss's reputation as the muse- du-jour and means she has now sampled every aspect of musedom, from the rarefied to the troubling. She has been a face-for-hire, an artist's subject and inspiration and, come December and the Playboy 60th anniversary special, a soft-core pin-up.
Another modern artist-muse relationship is that between fashion designer Marc Jacobs and filmmaker Sofia Coppola, though again it's debatable as to whether or not what he does is art. He named a handbag after Coppola, which hardly compares with a gold statue or a painting by Lucian Freud. You'll find a similar dynamic at play in the relationships between the late fashion journalist Isabella Blow and hat designer Philip Treacy. Blow also acted as muse and mentor to Alexander McQueen, who was photographed with her by Andy Warhol protege David LaChapelle in a 1996 portrait called Burning Down The House. The first work by LaChapelle to be purchased by London's National Portrait Gallery, it shows McQueen holding a burning torch and dressed as a woman while Blow, wearing one of his creations and a hat by Treacy, carries his skirts like a train.
"I think the fashion muse has come back into focus," says New York-based writer Francine Prose, author of The Lives Of The Muses: Nine Women And The Artists They Inspired. "So more people would know that Sofia Coppola is Marc Jacobs's muse than might know that [American artist] John Currin paints Rachel Feinstein [his wife]. She has an art career of her own, though, and it's often the case now that the muse does have her own career. So I think that having a reputation purely as a muse has kind of gone out of currency, which is great."
The women in Prose's book range from diarist Hester Thrale, who influenced 18th-century man of letters Dr Samuel Johnson, to John Lennon's wife, Yoko Ono. There's room, too, for Alice Liddell, who wasn't much older than Beatrice when she inspired Charles Dodgson to put pen to paper and, under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll, write the book that became Alice's Adventures In Wonderland.
"Now it would be much harder for an artist to say, 'My muse is 10 years old'," says Prose. "Our perceptions of what is appropriate have changed enough so that people have to be a bit more careful."
In the 20th century, the artist-muse relationship becomes a little less troubling though not, perhaps, any less exploitative. Still, it's true that some of the most famous muses of the period were either artists in their own right or used their position and the growing cult of celebrity to boost their own profiles, profiting as a result. Gala Dali effectively acted as her husband Salvador's publicist and he took to signing his paintings with both his and her names because, as he told her, it was "mostly with your blood" that he had painted them.
Perhaps the most equitable 20th-century relationships, says Prose, were the ones between photographer Lee Miller and Surrealist artist Man Ray, and dancer Suzanne Farrell and choreographer George Balanchine. Miller is now seen as a significant artist in her own right and, arguably, is more famous than her former lover. In the nude studies Ray made of her, it's certainly her dark glamour that shines through. Balanchine, co-founder of New York City Ballet and one of the greatest 20th-century choreographers, was even more heavily reliant on the skill and instincts of his muse, a ballerina he referred to as his "alabaster princess". As seems only right and proper, he was also head-over-heels in love with her.
"He couldn't have choreographed the dances he did without Suzanne Farrell," says Prose. "When I was writing the book I was looking at these old films of his ballerinas and she really was something else. She was quite a bit different from many of the other dancers for whom he choreographed dances. So it was collaborative: she allowed him to do things that he couldn't have done previously."
But while the modern muse is likely to have a career in her own right or, at the very least, be able to capitalise on her celebrity, it doesn't mean musedom is without its dangers. Elizabeth Siddal, model for John Everett Millais's famous pre-Raphaelite painting Ophelia, was widely regarded as muse to another artist, poet and painter, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, but she was treated terribly by him. He spent a decade engaged to her, on and off, and had many affairs. Plagued by ill health, she eventually became depressed and addicted to laudanum.
Fast-forward 150 years and Isabella Blow's fate is equally dismal. She too had long struggled with depression and that, added to her diagnosis with ovarian cancer and a sense that she had been jettisoned as muse and mentor by McQueen, contributed to her many suicide attempts. In May 2007, she succeeded. "She was upset that Alexander McQueen didn't take her along when he sold his brand to Gucci," Blow's friend Daphne Guinness stated in one of Blow's many obituaries: "Once the deals started happening, she fell by the wayside. Everybody else got contracts, and she got a free dress."
In her book, Francine Prose wonders if the muse should be retired for good. "Doesn't the idea … reinforce the destructive stereotype of the creative, productive, active male and of the passive female, at once worshipped and degraded, agreeably disrobing to model or offer inspirational sex?" she asks. The answer is yes, probably, though it needn't be the case. Prose thinks musedom should be an equal-opportunities employer in the sense that more men should be cast in the role of muse, and more artist-muse relationships should be viewed as equitable partnerships. Suzanne Farrell and Yoko Ono are the poster girls for that version of musedom.
One thing that's certain is that we will never stop wondering where artistic inspiration actually comes from. Nor can we deny that it requires more than just a muse-like catalyst for the work to be made. Petrarch, Freud, Lewis Carroll and the rest still had to put in the hours on their own endeavours. Dante's The Divine Comedy runs to 14,000 lines and he spent a decade on it, which hints at something more than just a need to impress a girl.
"It's so difficult, maybe impossible, for an artist to really say this is the source of my inspiration," says Prose. "I don't know anyone who can honestly say that and mean it wholeheartedly because so many other things come into play. For a writer or for a painter it's never so simple as that."
So maybe all the Greeks did by putting a name - or nine names - to the act of artistic creation was this: they gave the question the body of a woman and called it an answer. It's neat, but it's not the whole story - and for those women cast in the role, it can still bring tragedy as easily as triumph.
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