The muse at her easel | Daily News


The muse at her easel

Title: Self-Portrait

Author: Celia Paul

The word museography properly refers to the systematic description of objects in museums, but it might also do for the culture and ideology surrounding that dusty old figure of legend, the artist’s “muse.” If her aura is fading now, anyone educated during the twentieth century remembers when she played no small part in our curriculae, both formal and informal. (The male muse, back then, existed only in the homosexual realm.) To avoid her, you had to spend a lot of time in libraries seeking evidence of her opposite: not the sitter but the painter; not the character but the author; not the song but the singer.

And a few women did appear to have avoided the state of muse-dom: Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, Zora Neale Hurston, Patti Smith. In fact, such women could be said to have acquired muses themselves, or to have been involved in a mutually beneficial muse-ology with other artists (Vita Sackville-West, Alice B. Toklas, Langston Hughes, Robert Mapplethorpe). But it was slim pickings.

Meanwhile, in the annals of museography, you could discover a celebrated parade of handmaids to the genii, “legendary beauties,” ladies with salons, chic ladies, witty ladies, ladies with inspiring ankles, faces, breasts, voices, clothes, attitudes, houses, and inheritances; women whose brilliant conversation had been entombed in various novels; women whose personal style had prompted whole fashion houses into production; women whose tenure as girlfriend or wife usefully demarcated the various artistic “periods” of the male artists with whom they’d been involved, even when those women were also, themselves, artists. The Yoko Years. The Decade of Dora.

Point of exploitation

Accounts of the muse–artist relation were anchored in the idea of male cultural production as a special category, one with particular needs-usually sexual-that the muse had been there to fulfill, perhaps even to the point of exploitation, but without whom we would have missed the opportunity to enjoy this or that beloved cultural artifact. The art wants what the art wants. Revisionary biographies of overlooked women-which began to appear with some regularity in the Eighties-were off-putting in a different way (at least to me). Unhinged in tone, by turns furious, defensive, melancholy, and tragic, their very intensity kept the muse in her place, orbiting the great man.

Celia Paul’s memoir, Self-Portrait, is a different animal altogether. Lucian Freud, whose muse and lover she was, is rendered here—and acutely—but as Paul puts it, with typical simplicity and clarity, “Lucian…is made part of my story rather than, as is usually the case, me being portrayed as part of his.” Her story is striking. It is not, as has been assumed, the tale of a muse who later became a painter, but an account of a painter who, for ten years of her early life, found herself mistaken for a muse, by a man who did that a lot. Her book is about many things besides Freud: her mother, her childhood, her sisters, her paintings. But she neither rejects her past with Freud nor rewrites it, placing present ideas and feelings alongside diary entries and letters she wrote as a young woman, a generous, vulnerable strategy that avoids the usual triumphalism of memoir. For Paul, the self is continuous (“I have always been, and I remain at nearly sixty, the same person I was as a teenager…. This simple realisation seems to me to be complex and profoundly liberating”), and equal weight is given to “the vividness of the past and the measured detachment of the present.” You sense both qualities in her first glimpse of Freud, in 1978:

His face was very white, with the texture of wax. It had an eerie glow as if it was lit from within, like a candle inside a turnip. His gestures were camp. He stood with one leg bent and his toes, in their expensive shoes, were pointed outwards. He sucked in his cheeks in a self-conscious way and opened his eyes wide until I looked at him, and then his pupils, which were hard points in his pale lizard-green irises, slid under his eyelids and I could only see the whites of his eyes.

In the head of the muse were the eyes of a painter. At the time, she was at her easel, watching Freud enter the basement life-drawing class at the Slade School of Fine Art, where he was a visiting tutor. He liked to make a dramatic entrance. In Paul’s case, it all happened with unseemly speed. In a moment he is beside her; she shows him some drawings she has done of her mother; a painting of her father. He touches her back, suggests they go for tea, and after that tea, they get in his car:

As we drove west the low autumn sun was blinding. He took my hair and wound it around his fingers and started stroking my throat with a soft rotating movement. I felt his knuckles on my throat through my hair. He stared at me fixedly and told me I looked so sad. He asked me for my phone number.

At his flat, more tea:

As I was drinking it, he came and stood behind me. He lifted up my hair and buried his face in it….

He pulled me gently but insistently into a standing position. I watched him kissing me and my mouth was unresponsive. I saw the whites of his eyes and he looked blind. His head felt very small and light as eggshell. I was frightened. I asked him what he thought of my work. He said that it was “like walking into a honey-pot.”

Sweet temptation

Talk about Freudian! Though I wonder if they’re thinking of the same honey-pot? For a muse, the sweet temptation is validation: you want to know what the great man thinks of your work, even if the great man wants something else first:

He started to kiss me again, but I was insistent that I had to go back now. I told him that I had arranged to meet up with a life model, who I hoped would be able to sit for me privately.

In museography, art and sex struggle with each other, intertwine, become finally indivisible. But when the muse happens also to be an artist, the struggle is existential, because to submit entirely to musedom, to being seen rather than seeing, would be to lose art itself: As I was leaving I noticed a beautiful unfinished painting by him…. It was of a woman with her head resting on one side in a dreamy reverie. Her mouth was half-open. The image was full of love. When I was halfway down the stairs I heard him calling after me in a gentle voice, “Thanks awfully.”

- New York Review of Books

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