Artist and muse

O! for a muse of fire, that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention.

William Shakespeare

A friend and I made the trek out to Bunjil Place at Naree Warren to see the Archibald Prize and hear a couple of the artists and their subjects in conversation as part of Melbourne Writers Festival.

Kim Leutwyler painted both artist Shane Jenek’s (aka Courtney Act) personas. The work itself is an expression of gender and queerness using a blend of realism and abstraction.

James Powditch pursued chief political correspondent for ABC-TV’s 7.30 and president of the National Press Club, Laura Tingle, determined to capture the fearless political journalist and snippets of the woman behind the image. Her face is superimposed over a collage that includes various pieces of her work including a script from 7.30 and a page from her Quarterly Essay.

As a portrait prize, the Archibald is the perfect vehicle to prompt conversation and thought about the concept of ‘the muse’. In its most basic sense the ‘muse’ is that which inspires the artist. The word has its roots in Greek mythology with Zeus’ daughters forming the nine Muses who presided over the arts and science.

Traditionally the muse was romanticised as the beautiful young woman sitting (and often suffering) for the older male artist who objectified her whilst her own talents were overlooked. To gaze upon an object with such intensity and time lends itself to an intense emotional relationship – think Picasso and Marr, or Auguste Rodin and Camille Claudel, but the power relations are curious. How much is due to admiration, the artistic form or gender dynamics?

I am my own muse. I am the subject I know best. The subject I want to better.

Frida Kahlo

Writers including including Helen Garner (mixed medium on linen by Katherine Hattam) and a nude Benjamin Law (oil on canvas by Jordan Richardson) also posed for the Archibald and literature has had its own famous muse relationships. Think Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf, Charles Dickens and Ellen Ternan, Zelda Sayre and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Of course not all artist-muse stories left the female muse as an objectified shadow of the artist. Yates fell for English born-Irish revolutionary and feminist icon, Maud Gonne. A firebrand who refused four proposals from Yates because she didn’t want to be tied to a man and he wasn’t Catholic. Yates remained infatuated for five decades, producing a significant work of yearning poetry as a result.

Perversity is the muse of modern literature.

Susan Sontag

Contemporary writers often talk of the muse as a spirit presence that offers inspiration rather than an embodied being and we are commonly advised ‘don’t wait for the muse, start writing and they will show up!’

Show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too. If she doesn’t show up invited, eventually she just shows up.

Isabel Allende

At a Varuna writing residency a few months ago, I found the beauty of the National park became my muse as my daily sojourns provided the creative inspiration to motivate me to complete the first draft of my current manuscript, Gallows Tree. One particularly gruelling outing involving the Furber Steps even surfaced an ending I had not expected.

If you ever venture out to Bunjil Place I can also recommend a short trip further down the road to The Courthouse, next to the Berwick Post Office for a funky cocktail and tapas

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