A Brief and Risky Business:
Nine Who Nurtured Artists
The Lives of the Muses: Nine Women & the Artists They Inspired , by Francine Prose. HarperCollins, 374 pages, $25.95.
First, a confession: Sometimes I think that Clio, the muse of history, has come to earth in the human form of Condoleezza Rice. Consider her utter certainty, the eerie, distant quality of her voice, and the strange calm she projects at the margins of White House photographs. And I can think of no other explanation-save, perhaps, the puppy’s eagerness to chew on rawhide-for the exuberance she inspires in President Bush the Younger, her artist. (“Mr. President, Clio’s waiting in the Roosevelt Room … oops, I mean Condi.”) Just what exactly did happen behind closed doors during the famous “education process” that resulted in our nation’s foreign policy? From whence the spark of inspiration: from the bright-eyed, hawkish Muse, or from the cartoonland imagination of her Artist?
These very questions, minus the geopolitics, are the subject of Francine Prose’s The Lives of the Muses , a serial biography of nine enabling women and their notable-if not always transcendent-admirers. Inspired, as Ms. Prose writes in her acknowledgments, by the “magical moment” of seeing, firsthand, the original print of Portrait of Alice Liddell as a Beggar Child that Charles Dodgson (a.k.a. Lewis Carroll) presented to his favorite subject and “child-friend” when she was 7, The Lives of the Muses is a daringly conceived renovation of current and historical notions of what drives the creative process-and, not incidentally, a study in the havoc that art can wreak in the lives of those who would nurture its practice.
“Perhaps psychology has convinced us that the human psyche is too complex to derive something so tough and enduring as art from something so fragile and transitory as love,” Ms. Prose writes in one of the book’s most elegant chapters, about the symbiotic (and sexless) relationship between the dancer Suzanne Farrell and her choreographer and “god,” George Balanchine. “[S]urely the roots of creativity are more likely to reach down into the shadowy history of the self, back to some unresolved question of sexuality, or an abusive childhood.” Yet it was love and respect, in the personal lives of Ms. Farrell and Balanchine, that provided the source of their accomplishments in ballet-“We danced entirely for each other,” Ms. Farrell notes-and their example, neatly encapsulated by Ms. Prose, is the best argument of all for a model of creativity that gives a nod to Freud’s theory of erotic sublimation while, at the same time, being rooted in the more Platonic tradition of the muses, the underworld and the singing of Orpheus’ lyre.
The most unfortunate muse of all, in Ms. Prose’s view? Certainly Elizabeth Siddal, the beautiful milliner’s assistant who was plucked from servitude in a Cranbourne Alley shop to fulfill the Renaissance-inspired fantasies of the Pre-Raphaelites. She was painted first by Walter Deverell, who cast her as Viola in his canvas of Twelfth Night , and soon her “long coppery hair, pale skin” and “ethereal aura” had attracted the obsessive interest of Dante Gabriel Rossetti-who admired her with an energy bordering on “monomania.” But Siddal, like so many of Ms. Prose’s muses, harbored artistic ambitions of her own, and under Rossetti’s tutelage, she embarked on a parallel career in the arts that would inspire the praise-and the financial support-of the Pre-Raphaelite groupie John Ruskin (“I think you have genius,” he wrote to Siddal, “[and] I don’t think there is much genius in the world”).
Mistake! The reign of an artist’s muse is exceedingly short-roughly equivalent in years to the career of an N.F.L. lineman-and never more so than when the muse picks up pen, or camera, or paintbrush for herself. Laudanum addiction, combined with Rossetti’s interest in a series of other, healthier models (one with the delicious name of Fanny Cornforth) sapped Siddal of her creative ambition and, finally, of her life. Ms. Prose’s withering telling of the exhumation of Siddal’s body, seven years after her suicide by overdose (Rossetti was hoping to retrieve some poems he’d flung melodramatically into her coffin) marks a low point in The Lives of the Muses -one that Ms. Prose compounds by heaping scorn on Rossetti’s shoulders (earlier she’d accused him of being “mired forever in adolescence”), as if he were an odious neighbor in her apartment building and not a distant biographical subject.
In general, Ms. Prose’s combative style is better suited to the 20th-century muse-Gala Dalí, Yoko Ono, Charis Weston-and her book takes on an impressive gloss any time she discusses the art form that defined the modern age: photography. (“In the depth and fervor of its barely concealed passion,” Ms. Prose writes of Dodgson’s Portrait of Alice Liddell , “it evokes Flemish and Italian Renaissance art, those swooning saints … unconscious of the eroticism of their ecstatic postures.”) The most sympathetic portrait in Ms. Prose’s gallery belongs to the model-turned-photographer Lee Miller, childhood muse to her father, an amateur shutterbug, and later the femme fatale of the Paris Surrealists-those are her lips hovering over the landscape in Man Ray’s famous painting Observatory Time-The Lovers . Ambitious, fearless and talented in her own right, Miller learned all she could from the technically inclined Man Ray before she embarked on a series of adventures that culminated in her (nearly lost) World War II photojournalism for Vogue magazine, including some of the first shots from the German concentration camp Buchenwald.
Even if Miller’s son, cleaning out the attic after her death in 1977, hadn’t happened upon the cardboard boxes filled with her negatives and manuscripts, she would still be remembered for the sublime Surrealist gesture of taking a bath in Hitler’s personal tub at his recently liberated Munich headquarters-captured on film by her traveling partner (and lover) Dave Scherman, again for Vogue .
But it’s the enduring quality of Miller’s own photographic work, according to Ms. Prose, that so distinguishes her from the ordinary artist’s muse or, worse, the common “art wife.” Miller’s extraordinary and finally desperate life attests to the perils of that passage often risked but rarely encouraged, even in The Lives of the Muses : from model to maker, aspirant to artist.
Benjamin Anastas’ second novel is The Faithful Narrative of a Pastor’s Disappearance (Picador) .