Monday, September 7, 2009


“Painters don't claim muses until painting begins to take itself
as seriously as poetry.”
Germaine Greer

“Really, I think one’s art goes only as far and as deep as your love goes…
you have to feel deeply to do this kind of thing.”
Andrew Wyeth

Historically, the Ancients believed that the muse was a gift from the gods. The nine Muses were daughters of Zeus. If you (a man) were favored by a muse, you were free from all concern. Life was a bowl of cherries!

When we think of an artist’s muse, we generally have the image of a male artist with a female muse. It would be assumed that the catalyst for the artist’s creativity was caused by the sexual tension between the two of them. If you have seen “Shakespeare in Love” or “The Red Violin”, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Think about Picasso. Each of his women inspired a different body of work. He would drop one woman for another, and, with each new woman, begin an entirely new series of paintings.

The Seattle Art Museum’s current exhibit of the late Andrew Wyeth will be up through Oct 8th. If you have a chance to see it, I highly recommend you do. Included in this intimate exhibition of the artist’s work (only seven in all) are a few of the many beautiful paintings of his muse, Helga. Andrew Wyeth sketched and painted around 240 pieces of Helga Testorf, a German immigrant and caregiver for another one of Wyeth’s favorite subjects, Karl Kuerner. Wyeth created these works in complete secrecy between 1971 and 1985. Not even his wife was privy to his obsession.

I still have the Time magazine that announced the Andrew Wyeth “Helga Series”. I remember the wave of speculation that swept the nation when the story broke. Did Andrew Wyeth have an affair with this woman? That is what everyone wanted to know. How could his fascination with her not be sexual?

(A side note: Wyeth’s wife, Betsy, sold the entire series to Leonard E. B. Andrews in 1986 for over six million dollars. Andrews later broke up the collection, with much of the series purchased for a large sum of money by an anonymous Japanese collector. The works on display at the SAM are from private collections and have not previously been on public view.)

Last night, my husband and I watched, “Immortal Beloved”. It is the story about love letters written by Beethoven discovered soon after his passing. Although Beethoven had many affairs, there is question as to whom these letters were addressed and why they were found in his home. Were they not sent? Had they been returned? We will never know. The movie suggests they were written to his sister-in-law. I could not find any historical documentation to confirm that. In any case, whoever his “immortal beloved” was, she was definitely the muse for countless masterpieces written by the deaf maestro.

For the contemporary painter, Lucian Freud, if he has ever had a muse, it would most likely have been the Australian performance artist, Leigh Bowery. I do not believe, however, that Freud’s interest in Bowery was anything more than capturing his organic qualities in paint. He was mystified by the modeling and texture of Bowery’s bulging flesh just as some artists are infatuated with bulbous pears. This makes me it possible that Wyeth’s interest in Helga as a subject was no more erotic than his raincoat hanging on a hook or a sleeping dog? (I’m just asking…)

And, before we go any further, let’s just drop the gender thing right now. Please. I am a female artist who is all too familiar with this subject. (That’s all I’m saying about that.)

''Artists rarely create for the muse, to win or keep the Muse's love and admiration,'' Francine Prose writes in, ''The Lives of the Muses'', ''but rather for themselves, for the world, and for the more inchoate and unquantifiable imperatives of art itself. Their muses are merely the instruments that raise the emotional and erotic temperature high enough, churn up the weather in a way that may speed and facilitate the artist's labors.''
In other words, the purpose of the muse is to inspire the soul and penetrate the mind. It doesn’t have to be personal…or physical. Furthermore, the artist’s muse doesn’t have to be a human being. It can be a song, a thought, a color, or even something much more mysterious…something unexplainable. Something that just travels through like the wind blowing in your hair.

Listen, I don’t need to understand everything. Do you? I used to want to understand absolutely EVERYTHING…but I’m over it. I just want to be open to receiving and catching as much inspiration as I can…no matter where it comes from. Sound a little risky? Perhaps. But, if I am grounded in reality and truth, and committed to doing the right thing, then I should have no concerns as to where my inspiration comes from. My muse could be you, God, or even that bulbous pear sitting over there…

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