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The muse steps off the pedestal

Times Staff Writer

In the pictures on the walls, certain images recur. The line of a woman’s neck, the curve of her side from breast to hip, the lovely wide and still mouth. Some of the images are photographs, some are paintings barely recognizable as portraits. They are the work of several men but depict only one woman. Lee Miller, according to the title of the exhibition that will be at the Getty through June 15, was the “Surrealist Muse.”

In other eras, in other rooms, the face of the muse is clearer. In the statuary of ancient Greece, she is one of nine demi-goddesses able to bestow genius on the deserving. At the Tate Gallery in London, she fills an entire room of Pre-Raphaelite paintings -- their creators had many models, but it was Elizabeth Siddal’s face, framed by her famous flowing hair, that dominates the early work, now as Beatrice, now as Ophelia. Thousands of miles and a century away, in Chadd’s Ford, Penn., a square-jawed woman with braids and an unreadable gaze appears, filling the canvases and sketchbooks of Andrew Wyeth.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Apr. 19, 2003 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday April 19, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 20 words Type of Material: Correction
Eileen Cowin -- In an April 13 Sunday Calendar article on muses, artist Eileen Cowin’s name was misspelled as Corwin.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday April 20, 2003 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 0 inches; 18 words Type of Material: Correction
Eileen Cowin -- In an article on muses last Sunday, artist Eileen Cowin’s name was misspelled as Corwin.

Nor do painters own the muse. The words of Dante and Poe and Fitzgerald repeatedly evoke and pay homage to the one woman who mattered, the one woman who could ignite art with a glance. For Dante, she was Beatrice, glimpsed when still a child; for Poe his young cousin-wife, Virginia; for Fitzgerald, the doomed Zelda. The muse was not always young or kind; Norah Joyce famously thought little of husband James’ chosen career even after he’d immortalized her as the ecstatic Molly Bloom. But for many artists, mostly male, the muse was both woman and ideal. More than an object of desire, she was that which inexplicably stood between them and the yawning, empty dark.

“Give all to love,” wrote Emerson.

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Obey the heart;

Friends, kindred, days,

Estate, good fame,

Plans, credit and the Muse,

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Nothing refuse.

For Emerson, the muse was more ether than flesh, the intangible spirit found in nature, or art itself, that made creation possible. Lee Miller would come to adopt a similar attitude when, in her mid-20s, she traded one end of the lens for the other. The second and third rooms of the Getty exhibition chronicle her shift from subject to artist, and while her early work echoes Man Ray and the surrealists, Miller quickly shook off the shadows of the muse to become, perhaps, the last of her kind.

“The muse never really reinvented herself,” L.A. artist Eileen Corwin says. “But Lee Miller did.”

“We look at the many ways inspiration occurs,” says Weston Naef, who curated the Lee Miller show. “At the many sources including raw nature, or art itself. It’s really just the process of looking at surroundings in a new way. Lee Miller was a primal force who changed more lives than they changed hers.”

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In doing so, she helped redefine the term to include a kindred artistic spirit who creates as much as inspires. Someone who looks more perhaps like Frida Kahlo or Yoko Ono than Ophelia.

The postmodern muse.

A mother discovered

Antony Penrose, a dairy farmer from Sussex, England, sits in the Getty Museum’s Harold M. Williams Auditorium and watches a woman pretend to be his mother. Penrose is the son of Lee Miller and surrealist artist Roland Penrose, and he wrote the play he is watching: “Angel and Fiend.” Twenty-five years after her death, Penrose is still trying to figure out who, and what, his mother was exactly.

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“She was very devoid of personal vanity,” he says of the woman who, according to Time magazine, possessed “the most beautiful navel in Paris.” “It would have surprised her to realize how big of an impact she had.”

In a way, Miller was groomed to be a muse. Her father, an avid photographer, shot countless portraits of his beautiful young daughter, including many nudes. So it wasn’t surprising that Miller began her career as a model for women’s magazines. But she wanted to be an artist as well. When she moved to Paris at 22, she immediately attached herself, first artistically and later physically, to surrealist photographer Man Ray. She served as his model for years and also posed for other artists including Max Ernst and Picasso.

In her late 20s, she left Man Ray and Paris and set up her own photography studio in New York. When the United States entered World War II, she talked her way into a job as war correspondent for Vogue. She photographed, among other things, the liberation of several death camps, the destruction of buildings and lives. Her work lost its surrealist tone completely and became more her own.

“By the time you get to ’45, the idea that there is a muse is completely absent,” says Naef, who is curator of photographs at the Getty.

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She never achieved the fame her lovers had. After her marriage to Penrose and the birth of her son, she settled into the role of chef and hostess to many of the artists whose work she had inspired. In her later years, she worked less and drank more. She was, by all accounts, a difficult wife and, according to her son, a perfectly hopeless mother. “I would have starved to death if it hadn’t been for the housekeeper and other sympathetic onlookers,” he says. “We didn’t really speak for years.”

Penrose knew little of his mother’s work until after her death. He was digging through boxes in search of baby pictures he could show his children and came upon the journals she’d kept during the war. Underneath were hundreds of photographs, some of her, but mostly those that she had taken.

“It was the most astonishing moment in my life,” he says, “that the person I had known, who couldn’t catch a train without hysteria and high drama, had been a completely other person.”

Since then, he has put together concurrent exhibitions of both his parents’ work, written Miller’s biography, put together a book about her years during the war, and now this play. Even in death, Miller is once again the muse, this time to her son. “She is,” he says, “a much better muse than she was a mother.”

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“The word is ‘complicated,’ ” Naef says to describe Miller and her relationship with just about anyone.

But then, it’s never been easy to be a muse.

Changing face of inspiration

“So oft have I invoked thee for my Muse,” begins Shakespeare’s 63rd sonnet, “and found such fair assistance in my verse.”

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The muse has changed much since the nine headstrong daughters of Zeus appeared on the pages of Homer. During the Renaissance, she was downgraded from deity to Idealized Beauty. Neither Dante nor Petrarch ever met the women they spent their lives writing about; both were spied across a crowded arcade. Many of Shakespeare’s sonnets seemed aimed at and inspired by an individual, but she (or some argue, he) remains consigned to obscurity. A few centuries later, Alice Liddell may have spent her winter years dining out on her famous child-friendship with Lewis Carroll, but many other women found that as a career choice, musedom left something to be desired.

“He feeds upon her face by day and night,” Rossetti’s poet-sister Christina wrote of his relationship with Siddal, “and she with true kind eyes looks back on him,/Fair as the moon and joyful as the light

The Romantics preferred the muse passive and almost holy in her beauty. Virginia Poe inspired her husband mostly with her early death, Zelda with her madness. Siddal eventually died of a laudanum overdose after Rossetti, who had finally married her, abandoned her for Jane Morris, who, conveniently enough, became his next muse.

Post-Victorian attitudes allowed the muse a sexier side, and modern influences -- feminism, individualism -- have, some believe, made her obsolete. Why would a woman be a muse rather than an artist? Or, for that matter, a high-powered agent?

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Indeed, many of those who physically survived musedom -- Camille Claudel, Rodin’s longtime mistress; Gala Dali, Salvador’s wife; Picasso’s many wives and paramours -- would not be considered happy women. High drama often infuses artistic relationships, but there was also an inherent inequity in the muse-artist relationship.

“When the Muse makes claim for the recognition of her usefulness, the artist is in for trouble,” French medievalist and philosopher Etienne Gilson wrote in his 1953 book, “Choir of Muses.” A proper muse, a muse who shoots for true immortality, he says, allows the artists to decide what credit is due, and when.

Which makes it difficult to calculate a salary, or even a day rate. In Albert Brooks’ satirical 1999 film “The Muse,” Sharon Stone, who played an actual divinity, was very specific about her remuneration requirements. Presents from Tiffany, and not the key rings either.

It’s easy to hypothesize but hard to really know how many muses were, like Miller, artists in their own right, thwarted by the times. Traditionally, a muse was supposed to simply take satisfaction from the contact she had with greatness.

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In “The Lives of the Muses: Nine Women and the Artists They Inspired,” Francine Prose includes Hester Thrale, a smart, witty, socially ambitious brewer’s wife who became friend and muse to Dr. Samuel Johnson. He never tired of her conversation, and in fact moved in with her and her husband for weeks when struck down by depression and writer’s block.

After Johnson’s death, Thrale wrote several books herself, including one about her relationship with Johnson; in 1788, she published his letters to her. Although her influence on his work had been universally acknowledged, her mentioning it was considered unseemly and her exploitation of the friendship -- for fame and money -- utterly scandalous (though of course the books did rather well). That Johnson had used the friendship in much the same way was not even considered.

Miller tasted a bit of this gall when she rescued from the bin a photograph Man Ray had taken of her neck and shoulder, and re-exposed it, creating a form at once the same and different from the original. When she called it her own, Man Ray became so enraged, he painted a picture that included the same neck -- slashed.

“Certainly, feminism has made us reconsider musedom as a career choice,” Prose writes.

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“Pre-Victorian artists still had an idealized vision [of the muse] -- the one-way street of the male gaze,” says Julian Cox, assistant curator of photographs at the Getty. “The post-Edwardian years started to liberate women -- you had the suffragette movement, the ‘20s flappers. And there was a more carnal, more realistic and more equal relationship.”

Some believe that this equal relationship embodied by painters Kahlo and Diego Rivera, dancer Suzanne Farrell and choreographer George Balanchine, painters Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, even Yoko Ono and John Lennon has all but killed the muse. Courtly love, and even the romanticizing of free love, has given way to a much more pragmatic discourse between lovers, which is reflected in current art. Although No Doubt’s Gwen Stefani may have sung many songs about her boyfriend, and fashionistas still refer to Amanda Harlech as the Chanel muse, Dante’s Beatrice -- that beloved face appearing again and again -- is pretty much nowhere to be found.

Having a certain something

“The concept of the muse is part of the Romantic tradition,” says David Halle, a professor of sociology at UCLA who believes the muse is dead. “And this is just not a romantic age.

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“We are a more democratic society; we do not idealize individuals anymore,” Halle adds. “And people who are idols tend to be torn down rather quickly.”

But some artists still recognize the muse as an artistic force and a real person. David Glynn, an L.A.-based artist, has used many models in his work, which ranges from oil painting to digital art, and among them he has met a few he considers muse-like.

“There is something about some people,” he says. “They’re art-ready, they have a light within themselves. And while I can’t wait to find a muse to work, when I meet one of these people, they are inspiring.”

At a drawing workshop in New York, he met a dancer for the Paul Taylor Dance Company. “I thought, ‘Wow, who is this?’ ”

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Glynn used her in several of his works and was not at all surprised to see, a year or so later, her face staring down at him all over town from advertisements for the company. “She just has that whatever it is. One model described it to me as ‘being in creation,’ ” he says. “A true muse is part of the creative process, an example of how being seen is a creative act.”

Weston Naef thinks the muse is in the same state of health as creativity, although the packaging may be different. “The muse is no more retro than genius,” he says. “It may have become an unpopular notion, but we all know it exists.”

One of the problems, he says, is that people tend to think of the muse as female, which is no longer true and hasn’t been for a while. Oscar Wilde’s certainly was not; writer Christopher Isherwood and painter Don Bachardy had an ever-shifting mutual muse relationship. But historically, few women who became artists could acknowledge a man as a muse.

One of the most famous images by 19th century photographer Julia Margaret Cameron is titled “The Whisper of the Muse,” and although the muse is represented by two young girls, the photo itself is a tribute to painter George Frederic Watts, who was one of her greatest advisors and influences.

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But, says the Getty’s Cox, “as an upper-middle-class married woman, she would never have referred to a man as her muse.”

Cameron photographed many winsome young women, including a teenage Alice Siddal, but the most overtly muselike was her niece Julia Jackson. Who became the mother of Virginia Woolf. Who famously insisted that what a woman artist really needed was not divine inspiration, but a room of one’s own and enough money to eat properly.

Artist Corwin wonders if Woolf’s observation isn’t the best definition of the modern muse. Corwin uses her husband often in her work, and although she says she could not be the artist she is without him, she does not consider him her muse, exactly.

“I am madly in love with my husband,” she says, “and he has certainly changed my life by his presence. So maybe it’s just that we need a new definition for muse.”

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When she talks with her mostly female artist friends, she says, the word “muse” does not come up. “We talk instead about how supportive our spouses are. Not so much how one person inspired our work, but how they made it possible by giving us time or space.”

According to Cox, this is not surprising. “Most practicing artists would use other terms to describe their ‘influences,’ ” he says. “They wouldn’t want to give over the control which that term implies.”

Which is a real consideration. When Lee Miller left Man Ray, Penrose writes in “The Lives of Lee Miller,” the artist found solace by modifying a piece he had done. “Object of Destruction” was a metronome with the photo of an eye attached to the pendulum weight.

Man Ray made the eye Miller’s and on the back of the piece, he wrote, “Legend, Cut out the eye from a portrait of one who has been loved but is seen no more. Attach the eye to the pendulum of a metronome and regulate the weight to suit the tempo desired. Keep going to the limit of endurance. With a hammer well aimed, try to destroy the whole at a single blow.”

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Apparently, having a muse has never been easy either.

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A glimpse of inspiration

What: “Surrealist Muse: Lee Miller, Roland Penrose and Man Ray”

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When: Tuesdays-Thursdays and Sundays, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; Fridays- Saturdays, 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Closed Mondays

Where: J. Paul Getty Museum, 1200 Getty Center Drive, L.A.

Ends: June 15

Price: Admission is free. Parking is $5 per car

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Contact: (310) 440-7300; www.getty.edu


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