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Not just a pretty face…

I used to think being a muse was like being a high-class whore: both get paid and laid, and both practice an age-old, outdated profession which involves flattering men’s egos. Recently however, the role of muse is making a glamorous comeback: celebrities such as Uma Thurman and Penelope Cruz have become modern-day muses, and even Cherie Blair inspired artist Euan Uglow when she posed nude for him.

Traditionally it is the female muse who passively inspires male creators, not with brains but beauty. In this era of supposed sexual equality, can the modern muse survive – or is she on the brink of extinction?

The muse is certainly not a dying breed, and this is why: attractive women will always be welcome in contemporary culture. While the main movers and shakers in the cultural world are still men, their inspiration will remain women.

Beautiful women, at that: directors like Almodovar and Tarantino have adopted the gorgeous Cruz and Thurman as their inspiration, and fashion designers like Henry Holland rely on very striking models – in his case, flatmate Agyness Deyn – to inform their clothes ranges.

Artists have always found beautiful women to inspire them, and creators of modern art are no exception: Man Ray had Lee Miller, Andy Warhol had Edie Sedgwick. Even homosexual painter Lucien Freud had a female muse, the notorious Isabel Rawsthorne; he alleged that she was the only woman he had slept with.

The modern day muse can’t just rely on her breasts, however; she needs good business sense to get her places. Cruz and Thurman have been aided by their director-patrons; but they have not relied on them. What’s more, all are celebrities in their own right, not merely passive inspiration. In this Hollywood era, it is beauty not brains that sells films, and Amlodovar and Tarantino have depended on Cruz and Thurman’s looks to make their films commercially viable, as much as the actresses have depended on them.

The modern muse can be powerful and lead a life independent to the artist; this feminine insistence on power has balanced out the previously unequal relationships artists had with their muses. Modern-day muses are less likely to jump into bed with their patrons, for a start. In bygone centuries, the line between muse and lover was often crossed- Picasso painted lover Dora Maar, Rodin sculpted lover Camille Claudel – and let’s face it, posing nude for hours in a freezing cold room must be more palatable if sexual favours are on the cards.

Gone are the seedy days of models having sex with artists in Paris and Soho backrooms; the modern muse maintains a professional distance from her patron. Holland has a platonic relationship with Deyn, as does Almodovar with Penelope Cruz. When the boundary between bedroom and studio blurs, as it did with Edie Sedgwick and Andy Warhol, the creative relationship can turn sour: Sedgwick and Warhol fell out of love, and Sedgwick died early, at the age of 29, of an overdose.

Fertile as the artist-muse relationship can be, it still rings alarm bells. The male artist steals the spirit of the female muse; possesses her artistically as he has possessed her sexually; recreates her in his own image. Put this way, the concept of the muse is not one that inspires much confidence in this post-feminist era.

No longer paid and laid, the modern muse is still someone who exploits her ‘inspirational qualities’ – I’ll leave that phrase to your imagination – for financial gain and celebrity status. Now that we have a cultural climate which allows women to be creators and active thinkers, why are they still posing passive for male directors, artists, fashion designers? Why haven’t they climb out from under the wings of cultural giants, to make their own mark?


Isabel Rawsthorne 1912-1992

This celebrated woman inspired Epstein, Picasso and Giacometti among others. She was strikingly good-looking and moved among Paris and Soho art scenes. Rawsthorne attended the Liverpool School of Art and the Royal Academy Schools and later worked as a painter and designer of ballets, but was better known as a subject than an artist. She lived with Giacometti as his lover for a time, fathered the child of sculptor Jacob Epstein and was beautiful enough to tempt even the homosexual painter Lucien Freud into bed – or so he claimed. She can be identified in Lucien Freud’s painting Isabel Rawsthorne Standing in a Street in Soho, in Epstein’s bust of her and influenced five of Picasso’s paintings.

Edie Sedgwick 1943-1971

Andy Warhol’s muse and lover for a time, she worked with him at his studio-party venue The Factory and starred in his film Poor Little Rich Girl. “I think Edie was something Andy would like to have been; he was transposing himself into her à la Pygmalion,” claimed Truman Capote. After becoming disillusioned with Warhol, as she saw he was more celebrated than her, Sedgwick fell in love with Bob Dylan and reportedly inspired his songs, Just like a woman and Leopard skin pill-box hat, but was devastated when she found out Dylan was married. Sedgwick died from a barbiturate overdose, but is still celebrated today as a creative spirit and It girl. Sienna Miller played Sedgwick in Factory Girl, a film about her involvement with Andy Warhol.

Penelope Cruz 1974- present

Cited as Spanish director Almodovar’s muse, actress Penelope Cruz starred in his films Volver, Live Flesh and All about my mother. In a joint interview with Almodovar at the National Film Theatre, Cruz said, “He’s my everything…I became an actor so that one day I might have the opportunity to work with him.” Almodovar claims that he wrote Volver ‘with her in mind’ and explains, ‘Usually I don’t write the characters with actors in mind. In this case, I wanted to work with Penélope and she was included in the project from the beginning.’

Uma Thurman 1970- present

Director Tarantino has called Uma Thurman his ‘muse’, to which she responded: “Sure, why not? I have been. What is a muse? It’s someone who helps you with your creativity. And I don’t think that’s unfair.” Thurman has starred in Tarantino’s films Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill 1 and 2, and the director seems besotted with her, telling Time magazine, “Uma Thurman is a different species. She’s up there with Garbo and Dietrich in goddess territory.” However, Thurman is also celebrated as an actress in her own right, starring in such successful films as Batman.

Agyness Deyn 1983- present

At 25 years old, Agyness Deyn is one of Britain’s hottest models and plays muse to her flatmate, fashion designer Henry Holland. Holland says of Deyn: “I call Agyness my muse because she is the inspiration for the collection and for the label itself. It’s her individuality, her sense of fun and the way she throws all her clothes together. She just looks so good in all my stuff.” Deyn has featured on the cover of Vogue in Britain, Italy and the USA and is very much fashion’s It girl at the moment.

Lee Miller 1907-1977

Lee Miller was a model, war correspondent, artist and photographer, and muse to Man Ray and the Surrealists in Paris. Man Ray was besotted with her, and together they developed the technique of solarisation, becoming jealous of her when she starred in Cocteau’s film ‘the Blood of a Poet’. More than merely a muse however, Miller’s photos are extraordinary in their own right, both for their skill and subject matter. Miller was one of the first people to visit Hitler’s secret apartments and photographed it extensively. “Naturally I took pictures,” she said in 1946, “What’s a girl supposed to do when a battle lands in her lap?”




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