Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

Our Favorite Top Ten Muses

Written by Josie Schoel
Where is the face that can launch a thousand ships? The feminine beauty that can align the spheres and move a man to compose a flawless epic poem? As the mythical lady whose only function is to shepherd the creative sparks of the male artist, the muse has had a somewhat mottled reception in these (post) feminist modern times. Homer, Spenser, and Catullus, among countless other writers, all invoked muses to avoid the fate of the flaccid quill. 

When, for example, Milton begins his epic poem about the loss of Eden and the fall of man, he requests—no, scratch that—demands that the muse sing to him to ensure that his embellished adaptation of Genesis hits the ground running. And boy, does it work. Unlike the classic nine Muses, daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, the modern muse is an active and powerful creator in her own right while still managing to inspire those around her.

1. Jane Birkin

Of the Hermès Birkin bag, Jane Birkin was a huge inspiration to French singer Serge Gainsbourg. The duo is most known for the controversial song, “Je t’aime . . . moi non plus” (“I love you . . . me neither”), in which Birkin moans in the background to Gainsbourg’s sexually explicit crooning. A UK chart-topper in, fittingly enough, 1969, the people loved it. While Gainsbourg wrote many of her first songs, since their breakup, Birkin has continued to write her own songs and direct her own films. And as the cherry on top, the duo produced the luminous and brilliant Charlotte Gainsbourg. Call that a product of some good inspiration.

2. Patti Smith

Oh, how I love me some Patti Smith. With the recent release of the fantastic National Book Award winner, Just Kids, Smith’s memoir of interlaced vignettes and anecdotes about her rising stardom and relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, readers have been offered a window into a powerfully unique and magnetic relationship. Displaying Smith’s whimsical style, the finely crafted vignettes illustrate a portrait of best friends, lovers, collaborators, and mutual muses. In an interview after Mapplethorpe's death, Smith noted that Mapplethorpe helped her to think of herself as an artist, “not as an apprentice, not as a student, but as an artist.” He featured her in many of his short films and photographs, including the iconic cover of her album, Horses. In Just Kids, Smith portrays the ideal muse-to-muse relationship, writing that Mapplethorpe was her “lover and friend to create with, side by side in a state of mutual concentration, loyal yet free.”

3. Mary Shelley

Daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, one of our first documented and outspoken proponents of women’s rights, Mary Shelley was a tireless editor of husband and Romantic poet Percy Shelley’s works, thus deeming herself his “practical muse.” Born of such brilliant parents, (her father was the philosopher William Godwin) genius may have come easy to Mary, but the dynamics of her personal life were never anything but complicated and, at times, were terribly traumatic. Her mother died eleven days after she was born; she ran away with Percy at age sixteen, and they got married after Percy’s wife committed suicide and two of her kids died. Oh, and she had a miscarriage after Percy drowned while sailing to Lerici, Italy. Amidst the chaos of her life, she wrote Frankenstein, one of the most widely read and adapted pieces of literature in history.

Everyone seems to want her. I want her. Known as VV in the Kills and Baby Ruthless in the Dead Weather, Mosshart maintains a sultry, brazen voice and true to form Chelsea girl style, both on stage and off. Her Mick Jagger-like swagger, coupled with a sexy femininity, allows for her sexuality to exude in a way that feels empowered rather than Lady Gaga manufactured.

5. Leonora Carrington

Leonora Carrington was a radical before she left the safety of her upper class home in Lancaster, England. At fourteen years old, after being expelled from two schools, the surrealist painter and writer lifted her skirt in the face of a Catholic priest. Her rebellious behavior was translated into art after she met Max Ernst, who referred to her as his “Bride of the Wind,” in 1936. The word “inspire” has etymological roots in the Greek words for wind, and it is pretty clear that Leonora, with her magnificent beauty and animal laden self-portraits, inspired the alpha surrealist. But it wasn’t until she met Remedios Varo, another prolific surrealist painter, that Carrington encountered “an intensity of imaginative power that she found in no one else.” 

6. Lea T

If you don’t already know who Lea T is, it’s time to key up the Google images. Lea T, now female, born Leandro Cerezo, male, is the star and muse of Givenchy’s creative director, Riccardo Tisci. She has also undergone hormone replacement therapy to prepare for a complete sex change. She became part of the international LGBT conversation when she posed in the esteemed pages of French Vogue, with her hair just covering her breasts and her genitals, not yet altered. She recently followed that flash in the pan with a super sexy photo of her and Kate Moss making out on the cover of Love Magazine with the phrase, “This Is Hard Core” scrawled below. And yes, Lea T is hard-core. Rather than let her striking jawline do the talking, she has been speaking out about the idea that gender identity disorder is a myth—it’s not—and how challenging it is to come out as gay, bisexual, or transgendered in an übermacho, Latin American, Catholic society. Move over Gisele and Adriana. There is a new Brazilian supermodel in town.

7. Lee Miller

Lee Miller had a rough start to her muse career. As a teenager in upstate New York, Miller’s aspiring photographer father zeroed in on her nubile beauty, using her as his subject for nude photos. She then moved to Paris and New York to study theatrical lighting, and by 1926 she was a highly sought after fashion model. After harassing the famous Man Ray, who insisted he didn’t want assistants or interns, Miller became both his apprentice and his muse, learning her way around both sides of the camera. She later worked for Vogue and became their foreign war correspondent, awarding her the opportunity to shoot the liberation of the Dachau Concentration Camp. After the death of Hitler, she shot her most iconic photo: an image of herself in Hitler’s bathtub, dirty old boots on the floor, a framed picture of the dictator in the background.

8. Yoko Ono

You can’t go about tabulating the modern muses without a nod to the anti-muse. While Yoko Ono may or may not have played her hand in the deterioration of the most beloved rock band in history, her partnership with John Lennon was a fertile bed for insane creativity. With such zany concepts like the famous “Bed-In For Peace,” “Nutopia: The Country of Peace,” and “Bagism,” the latter which suggests that living in a bag would free individuals from casting judgment based on appearance; not to mention their countless musical projects and recordings, Ono and Lennon epitomized the mutual muse relationship.  As Lennon once noted, “It wasn’t that she inspired the songs. She inspired me.”

9. Zelda Fitzgerald

The story of Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Union Square fountain-hopping bacchanalia has become something of an allegory for the Lost Generation. The literary couple partied hard, worked hard, and battled even harder as they suffered from fierce creative competition and jealousy. In the midst of their little and big hurricanes, they also experienced an immense creative outpouring. Zelda was a literary maven, ballerina, and journalist; she was not only the muse of the famous writer, but as the quintessential flapper, she was also the muse for all of the Jazz Age, as women tried to emulate her easy breezy style. In fact, F. Scott was so inspired by her that he even went as far as to lift things directly from her journal for both The Beautiful and Damned, as well as his first novel, This Side of Paradise, in turn inspiring Zelda to write that “plagiarism starts at home” in her review of his work.

10. Frida Kahlo

Handbags! Mugs! Buttons! T-shirts! Prosthetic unibrows! Despite the overcommercialization of her image, the collective public never seems to tire of Kahlo. Unlike screen-printed baseball caps of Che Guevara (that other Latin American icon), new quilted headbands or silk jumpsuits featuring the stoic gaze of the Mexican artist don’t seem to necessitate cultural eye-rolling. Kahlo and Diego Rivera’s relationship had a wealth of problems, and as he was celebrated, she suffered at the hands of his abuse, yet it is pretty clear, from the stories we have been told about their life together, that the couple inspired each other. 

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