Farid Abdelouahab recounts the stories of thirty-two women who, through their temperament, beauty, talent, and pure magnetism, enthralled society’s artistic geniuses and inspired the creation of some of the greatest works of the past centuries in his new book "Muses: Women Who Inspire."
Over the course of many centuries, the women who have fascinated and inspired philosophers, authors, and musicians are as many and various as the artists themselves. The muses in the present volume, though very different as individuals, all represent a form of modernity. Though the selection is subjective, they were all chosen for their acute intelligence, indomitable will, extreme elegance, singular independence, or unbounded devotion. Some oscillate between the traditional figure of the protective mother (a few were incapable of fulfilling that role biologically) and emancipation from male domination. For some, the passion for independence—sometimes through their own creativity—would be undone by the trap of celebrity and money (Gala Dalí, for instance) or else overweening narcissism (as with Countess Virginia de Castiglione). Another pitfall lay in wait for a good number of them: the artistic life by proxy, as exemplified by Alma Mahler, who was obliged to give up writing music at the insistence of her composer husband.
This book ends with the immediate aftermath of World War II. Thus, it does not address the celebrities of the “society of spectacle”—with ephemeral stars or living logos for a label or fad. Edie Sedgwick, Andy Warhol’s muse, essentially represents a drugs and clubbing lifestyle; Grace Jones evokes a decade more than a body of work; while supermodels such as Kate Moss symbolize a battery of cosmetic and luxury brands. This is not to denigrate them, but this book focuses on a more romantic age. As readers will discover these women set sail on the stormy waters of creative art, with authors or painters—some possessive and obsessive, others worshipful, perhaps, but thoughtless, self-centered. Their stories are often checkered and tragic, occasionally happy and harmonious, but each is unique and never less than affecting. There is a contingent of flappers with bobbed hair who made their bid for freedom—like Kiki de Montparnasse or Nancy Cunard, Aragon’s muse in the Roaring Twenties. While some of these women have since become legends, muses have always, since time immemorial, been part of the act of creation. Indeed, it is a strange union that requires the consenting female to become—for better or for worse—the future of the artwork.
Charles Baudelaire a few years before his death, by Étienne Carjat
Their lack of money and their rejection by a large part of bourgeois society could not have improved relations between the poet and his mistress Jeanne Duval.
Virginia de Castiglione, photograph by Pierre-Louis Pierson, c. 1865
The passions that led to the fall of the countess were essentially self-centeredness, egocentrism, and narcissism.
The countess Virginia de Castiglione oversaw every last detail of her photographic sittings: viewpoint, costume, attitude, composition type, final format, even the title, and was sometimes inspired by the opera or theater. Pierre-Louis Pierson executed these directives to the letter, as in this scene of c. 1865 that recalls the countless parties at which she had been the star attraction during her heyday.
Portrait of Fyodor Mikhaylovich Dostoevsky by Constantin Chapiro, c. 1870
Portrait of Alma Mahler taken in 1920 by an unknown photographer
Gustav Klimt fell under her youthful charm when she was seventeen: “Alma is beautiful, intelligent, witty. She possesses everything a man could possibly desire, and that in abundance. I believe she’ll be a mistress among women wherever she goes in the world of men.”
Rilke in June 1919
He spent part of the spring of that year with Lou. His health soon deteriorated fatally and he died at the Valmont sanatorium, in Switzerland, on December 29, 1926, in all probability still in love with Lou.
Yvonne Printemps in Sacha Guitry’s play <em>Désiré</em>, which premiered at the Théâtre Édouard-VII in April 1927. Its author adapted it for the cinema following their separation some ten years later.
Along with the image on page 152, this photograph of Marlene Dietrich was taken by Don English for the movie <em>Shanghai Express</em>, directed in 1932 by Josef von Sternberg. The first was used as the poster for the Forty-Fifth International Cannes Film Festival in 1992.