Musing on Muses

Kate Flora here, just back from six days in Paris and nursing a miserable airplane cold. Lest you get too jealous, let me assure you that it rained every day and was colder than Maine. But it was lovely. As my husband and I were both reading The Hare with Amber Eyes, a memoir of sorts by Edmund De Waal, one of our perambulations took us to the right bank to stroll through the Parc Monceau.

While the majority of my photos were of ornamental gates, or pigeons perching on statuary, or of flower gardens, the thing that most struck me about this park were the statues of famous artists, writers, and musicians. Why were they so striking? Because each of the statues was of a famous man, and each famous man had a sylph-like female muse, often lying at his feet, staring up at him with adoration.

I will confess at once–my first instinct was a wish that I were more graphically talented. Then I would have taken these photographs and switched the figures, so that the significant statues were of women, and those lying at their feet were men. It would have made for some pretty funny displays.

The statues reminded me of a book I read once that has stayed with me, as a concept, ever since. The book is Spending, by Mary Gordon. I should warn you that this is a very sexy book (or perhaps I should say ‘erotic’) but what made the book memorable for me is Gordon’s premise of women and muses, and how her heroine, Monica Szabo, an artist who must support a family and longs for more time for her art, acquires a muse.

As the book begins, Monica has a friend who has opened an art gallery in Provincetown, and Monica has reluctantly agreed to give a slideshow and a talk at the gallery. She has put up a slide of a painting she’s done called The Artist’s Muse. As Gordon writes:

In the background there’s a lot of emptiness. DiChirico emptiness, that kind of spacy gray green. And a shadow of a table. In the foreground, a man wearing only his underwear, a very beautiful pair of green and white striped silk boxer shorts. I had a wonderful time doing those shorts, the pearliness of the white, absorbing that dim light, and the green stripes, the green of an Anjou pear . . . In one hand, the  guy’s holding a black cast-iron frying pan. I enjoyed painting that very much–the blackness its own distinct black with a touch of green, the circular shape, the hard edges of the handle. In his other hand, he’s holding a white egg.

Then Monica gives up on trying to get the audience to focus on art, and on being entertaining, and decides to be provocative:

So I said, “You know, folks, there’s a tradition that male painters get to take advantage of: the woman who’s a combination model, housekeeper, cook, secretary. And of course, she earns money. And provides inspiration. All over the world, girls growing up dreaming of being the Muse for some kind of artists  . . . Now I ask you, mothers and fathers of America, are your boys dreaming of these things? Where, I ask you, lovers of the arts, where are the male Muses?

And he stood up, just there, in front of everyone, and said, “Right here.”

And so the story begins. A rather flawed plot, but a delightful exposition of how Monica’s life is changed by the acquisition of a muse who will support her, cook for her, fly her to Europe to study paintings of Christ after he’s taken down from the cross, and do whatever is necessary to enable her to paint and realize her artistic vision.

Of course, it is a fantasy. And of course, having everything given to you so all of your time is available for your art is a mixed blessing. What do you owe them? Do you even have a clearly defined artistic vision. How do you learn to adjust to that level of permitted obsession, etc. Will you struggle with allowing yourself the kind of immersion you’ve always claimed you craved?

But briefly, for a morning in a Paris park, I stared at those statues and thought of Mary Gordon, and

Rainbow over the Pantheon

wanted to tip the world on its head for a bit. I wanted other strollers to be made to wonder, to think about how readily we accept a vision of the world where the men are honored with statues and the women are curled sinuously at their feet or staring in awe over their shoulders. I like to have my thinking shaken up, and I thanked Mary Gordon, once again, for making me see the world a little differently.

Tonight, if I’m lucky, my muse, who can’t even find the cast-iron frying pan, will take me out for burger night, after a very hard, not at all creative, day, during which I will try to condense the entire plot of And Grant You Peace, my next Joe Burgess book, into 250 words.

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3 Responses to Musing on Muses

  1. John Clark says:

    Wow! Great imagery and excellent points about the skewed expectations we hand to girls. Guess that’s one reason I love reading Tamora Pierce because as she says, she creates girl heroes who kick butt.

  2. Lea Wait says:

    Love it! I had no idea about those statues … although the “muse concept” is certainly not an alien one. (Now I have to read SPENDING.) Maybe there are different kinds of muses … the kind that inspire, which can be found almost anywhere, but not everywhere, like a found penny on a beach … and the kind that provide and comfort, like patrons of old, and perhaps salaried partners who also do the grocery shopping and keep the house cleaned today.

  3. Tres interessant, Kate… merci!

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