Essay: Muse

by Niamh White on 18 November 2013

Curator Niamh White explores the relationship between artist and muse, arguing that the latter is often misrepresented and undervalued.

Curator Niamh White explores the relationship between artist and muse, arguing that the latter is often misrepresented and undervalued.

Image from the 'Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore!' exhibition catalogue, shot by Nick Knight

The artist's muse is typically celebrated for possessing an inherent quality that can inspire the most profound masterpieces. Often shrouded in melodrama and mystique, the muse is generally an incredibly beautiful woman who is handpicked by the artist she inspires because they believe she embodies some unique attribute that can induce moments of great genius. To be labelled a muse, while perhaps initially enviable and flattering, can also be a poisoned chalice. Too frequently, the muse's own traits are emphasised as emotional, romantic and often incidental, and the details of the her own agency are at best ignored, at worst erased. She will be portrayed as having just enough artistic prowess to appreciate the work of her counterpart, but not so much as to overshadow him. By labelling a relationship as one of artist and muse, we risk the misrepresentation of creative collaborations and partnerships that are in fact active, fulfilling and mutually beneficial.

Historically, few movements of art have had so much literature and attention devoted to their muses as the Pre-Raphaelites. Fiction and non fiction writers alike have enraptured us with tales of the 'stunners', a term Dante Gabriel Rossetti coined for 'a beautiful girl, whether she was married or single, lady or model.' Stories of Elizabeth Siddal almost catching her death as she lay serenely in a bath of cold water for Sir John Everett Millais' iconic rendering of Ophelia are repeatedly documented. Countless pages are given over to describing her fiery red hair and alabaster skin. Her laudanum addiction, depression and eventual suspected suicide is given reams of attention. But her own creative output, her painting and poetry, has been largely neglected or sidelined as derivative of her male contemporaries until very recently. What is now apparent, is that Siddal's relationship with the Pre Raphaelite artists was one of mutual admiration. While Siddal posed for Millais with a determination and commitment to his art that almost saw her die of pneumonia, she also provided him with ideas for compositions from her own sketches, rivalled him in painting and wrote celebrated poetry. In her lifetime, Siddal's patron was the leading English art critic of the Victorian era John Ruskin, who was so impressed by her work that he supported her financially until her death. Siddal was recently given an extensive rereading during the Tate's comprehensive exhibition Pre-Raphaelites: The Victorian Avant Garde, which has largely helped to relocate many of the female artists involved in the movement, but there is still some way to go before these 'muses' are afforded the credit they deserve.

Lee Miller is another historical case in point. Notoriously beautiful, (she was picked out on the street by Conde Nast himself to be a model for Vogue), she is widely remembered as being Man Ray's most influential muse. She features in many of his most iconic silhouettes including his Le Violin d'Ingres and is widely credited with being his 'lover and pupil'. In fact, Miller only spent one year of concentrated time with Man Ray, which she actively put to good use. Apprenticing herself to him, she became proficient in creating surrealist imagery and is also cited as being equally responsible for developing the technique of solarisation. Miller left Man Ray to become a reportage photographer of World War 2, capturing some of the most telling and harrowing imagery of her generation. Photographing both battle scenes and the horrors of the death camps, Miller used the artistry of her surrealist eye to document severe human trauma. Despite her own achievements, Miller's life is emotively recorded as one of a muse, riddled with bouts of depression, alcoholism and an inferiority complex that she would consistently be overshadowed by the men around her.

Blow was also never selected by those she inspired, but sought them out with an unrivalled determination. Rarely at her desk, Blow trailed the streets of London seeking out the next talent.

The problem with labelling Isabella Blow as a muse is that this preconceived idea of an emotionally charged woman casually lounging around the artist lingers on. Blow, in fact, can bat away every cliche attached to the role. By her own admission, she was no natural beauty. Her niece Harriet Verney fondly recounted her aunt describing herself as having 'the face of a dog, but a great body', when interviewed for this series. Blow's appearance was not a god-given gift, but a carefully constructed and finely tuned entity. Jeremy Langmead, her editor at the Sunday Times Style, has described the spectacle of her walking through the office each morning clad in an array of awe inspiring outfits. From Alexander McQueen's antler head pieces to John Galliano gowns, Blow's sensational clothes enlivened a work place that was typically filled with men in straight suits. Blow's body was her canvas, and she used it ceaselessly to champion the young designers she loved. While her appearance did serve as an inspiration to many of those creatives working with and around her, the feeling was reciprocal. She was able to bring their works to life both every day in the real world and in her extravagant editorials.

Blow was also never selected by those she inspired, but sought them out with an unrivalled determination. Rarely at her desk, Blow trailed the streets of London seeking out the next talent, the next collection, the next hat. When she found them, the relationships she formed were all-encompassing. Creatively, financially and emotionally, Blow's discoveries could rely on her support in almost any capacity. Philip Treacy and Alexander McQueen spent time living and working in her Elizabeth Street flat, she knew the best places to buy materials, had an extensive frame of historical reference and, of course, had a network of friends, colleagues and associates who could buy, employ and elevate those she championed.

Blow's astonishing ability to cultivate and nurture talent when she found it is repeatedly cited in recounts of her interactions with her contemporaries. Both Treacy and McQueen were very young and isolated when she encountered them. Neither had connections to the fashion world, neither were particularly confident or self-assured. Yet none of this was of consequence to Blow. In a whirlwind, they were introduced to the most influential and avant garde figures in the creative industries. Treacy affectionately described his time with Blow as like having 'a love affair.' He adds, 'her passion was for young creative people. Her belief is what carried us… She was very kind to me, her kindness was remarkable. That was her magic, because her expectation of what you were about to do for her was so high, you just rose to the occasion.' It seems that through encouragement, care and commitment, Blow was able to draw remarkable creations from her peers. Her unquestioning belief in their abilities combined with their eagerness to please her, drove them to exceed all expectation. Rather matriarch than muse, Blow's nurturing wing played an essential role in drawing out moments of greatness.

Then, of course, were her notorious editorials. Unafraid of huge expenditure or grand design, Blow was responsible for some of the most spectacular and operatic spreads in fashion history, most notably during her role as fashion editor at the Sunday Times Style. There was an undeniable synthesis in clothes produced by Galliano and McQueen at this time and Blow's continued obsession with the theatricality of fashion, and the union between them resulted in shoots of epic proportion and significance.

It is tempting to tell Isabella's story through a series of frivolous, spectacular and melancholic tales, and this fits the muse role easily. But to do so trivialises the impact that she made. If we can learn anything from the cases of Elizabeth Siddal and Lee Miller, it is that focusing on the moments of high drama, romance and in the end tragedy surrounding these individuals ultimately dilutes their achievements. In fact, if a muse is responsible for encouraging the production of great art, it is more likely that they too are intellectually invested and actively striving to create. What seems more important, is to recognise the vitality in creative collaboration, the productivity of shared strands of knowledge and the joy of a relationship based on mutual respect and admiration. Style icon, editor, mentor, patron, materfamilias, friend are all words that could describe Isabella Blow. Muse, just doesn't cut it.




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Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore! - Kiki Georgiou on the innate desire to create and worship icons.

Essay: The Mad Hatters’ Methods

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Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore! - Katharine Zarrella on Blow's (and her own) love affair with hats.

Essay: Remembrance

07 May 2007
Remembrance: Andrew Gow on the extraordinary twin talents of Isabella Blow and Steven Robinson.
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