I didn’t think about having or not having a muse until I went to art school and began painting from life. Painting the nude. Some classes had male nudes, but mine, for the short while I studied painting at the Art Student’s League, only had female nudes.
So there I was at the easel, painting the model. One week it was a young woman with full breasts and long black hair. My view was a side view. I was at some distance away, so although I could see her profile, her facial expression was not key. I painted her from the side. She was propped up with pillows. Her legs were stretched out. The cloth she lay on was a pale cream color. The fabric draped behind her complemented her skin tone. She would have blended into the background except for her hair, which was long and dark, a stark contrast against the peachy, coffee-with-cream shades of the rest of the canvas.
I worked without thinking what I was seeing. I looked without thinking what I saw. My mind was focused on the task at hand, not what it meant. My goal was to finish the canvas before the end of the week when the model would disappear.
When the painting was dry I took it home and hung it up in the marital bedroom. At first all I saw was how well the colors went with the bedspread. How peaceful the model looked, and how she was restful to look at. I thought it was good work. I was pleased with my progress.
It wasn’t until I came home with a second female nude that I started to reflect on how I felt about the paintings and what kind of statement I was making with them, regardless of my skill level or any possible artistic merit. Was I looking at them the same way that a man would look at them? Did it make a difference? Should it make a difference gender-wise?
As I pondered these questions, I began to think of all the nude paintings I’d seen in museums and art books, and how all but a tiny few had been painted by men. And then I thought of male artists and their female muses. I didn’t have a muse at the time, but if I were to have one, would it be a man? How would that work out?
I didn’t come up with an answer, but it got me started thinking about subject and object, and how as an actress being photographed I had felt like “an object.” How I had subjected myself to different male interpretations, regardless of who I was inside. It made me feel both powerful and powerless.
But that was then and this was now. And what was I trying to say to the viewer? What were my feelings?
The question was answered when I began painting nudes—both male and female—from my imagination. Because then they came entirely from me, from an inner prompt, and were a reflection of my inner feelings.
I believe art transcends gender, resolves polarities, and takes us to another plane entirely. And those who inspire us—our muses—whether they be same-sex or opposite-sex, are those whom we see in ourselves and identify with.
I think with every painting, something is resolved for the one who created it. For me, it was the question, what am I seeing, and how am I seeing it. And finally, why am I seeing it this way? Which all boiled down in the end to—Who Am I?
My study of the female form was more emotionally charged than that of the male, as I had so much more to resolve—namely about how I saw myself. And then it caused me to think what a good idea it would be if everyone was required to draw or paint from life.
Our culture is polarized in so many ways, and perhaps one of the most damaging is the “body beautiful” in the media, compared to the various shapes and sizes we are in the real world. What happened to me as a result of studying anatomy and light and shadow, was that I became fascinated by form itself. Judgments went out the window, and I began to see Beauty everywhere.
But that’s another topic, to be continued another time….