In scene seven of act four of Hamlet, Queen Gertrude announces that Ophelia, the romantic partner of the prince who gives the work its name, drowned in a stream after falling from the branches of a willow tree. The scene inspired the British John Everett Millais (1829-1896) to paint one of his most famous paintings, which depicts Ophelia lifeless under the bed of a river, as if resting from deep suffering. The features drawn are from the face of Elizabeth Siddal (1829-1862). For months on end, the model lay in a bathtub heated by lamps. When the contraption failed, she didn’t complain about the freezing water, and caught pneumonia that nearly killed her. History has made her a symbol of the neglect and suffering of women turned into muses by great artists.
Muse: Uncovering the hidden figures behind art history’s masterpieces
But these beauties did not live by submission and troubles alone, attests to the book recently released in the United States, and still without translation in Brazil, Muse: Uncovering the Hidden Figures Behind Art History’s Masterpieces (Muses: Discovering the Hidden Figures Behind Historical Works of Art, in Portuguese). Written by the English artist Ruth Millington, a specialist in art history, it presents little-known facets of women (and some men) who lent their bodies and faces to famous paintings. “Most painters did not give credit to their muses. They were kept anonymous so that the focus was only on them”, the author told VEJA.
Finding Dora Maar: An Artist, an Address Book, a Life
Ofelia’s model, by the way, was a daring woman for her time and submission in the name of Millais’ art seems to be an outlier in her trajectory. A draftsman and poet, Siddal was an aspiring artist when she first posed for a painting and made a career out of her craft. In the male-dominated world of the Victorian era, she, who had limited access to formal education, infiltrated the English cultural effervescence as a model and became the inspiration of painters, including Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), whom she married. She was not content, however, with the passivity of her role. “She was part of the movement. She learned to paint, got sponsors and exhibited works with the men’s cream”, says Ruth.
Artemisia Gentileschi: The Language of Painting
A similar path followed Dora Maar (1907-1997). Born in Paris, she is the inspiration behind a series of works by Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), to whom she was married, including the celebrated The woman who cries (1937). A photographer and anti-fascist activist, she was one of those responsible for opening Picasso’s eyes to human suffering, a theme that would mark the Cubist’s career. She was the one who got a studio big enough for him to paint the Guernica (1937). Dora also made Picasso her muse by photographing him as he painted. The artist, in turn, never gave credit to Dora. He was abusive and unfaithful. Such turmoil transpired in the tears that flow down the woman’s face in the work signed by him — in a glaring example of the mixture of fascination and objectification.
Once a compliment, today a synonym for submission, the term “muse” emerged in ancient Greece and was linked to nine deities, daughters of Zeus, who held the power to inspire men. Powerful, they were adored and respected. The turning point took place in the Renaissance, when real women began to be painted and idealized as a symbol of sexuality. It didn’t take long for the stigma of being a muse to turn models and lovers into objects of little value to painters. “There was an imbalance of power until the 20th century. It was a male world, and these relationships were reflected in the art”, explains Ruth. Italian Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1653) defied standards and was one of the first to make a muse of herself. Raped by a professor, she used self-portraits to expose her suffering — and even decapitated men in her paintings.
Exception to the rule, Gala Dalí (1894-1982) was one of the few to be recognized. Wife of Salvador Dalí (1904-1989), she inspired not only the artist, but also several names in the surrealist movement with whom, not infrequently, she had love affairs. She was also her husband’s agent. “By signing my paintings as ‘Gala-Dalí’, I named an existential truth, because without Gala I would not exist”, declared the painter. When breaking with the standards, she was even called a “demonic dominatrix”. In contemporary art, the definition of muse has been expanded, as have standards of beauty. Case of the portrait of the obese model Sue Tilley made by the German Lucian Freud (1922-2011). Tilley posed for the screen from 7 pm to 1 am for nine months. It is proof that the bright colors of sacrifice in the name of art never ceased to be part of the muses’ script, regardless of the changes in society’s perception of the role of these beauties through the ages.
Published in VEJA of June 15, 2022, issue no. 2793
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