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Five creatives who are more than just muses

Get to know the people behind the artworks: Alison Lapper, Dora Maar, Frida Kahlo, and more

Throughout art history, many artists have turned to a single obsession to inspire their practise: their muses. These muses have become the source of many great works, with their images being reproduced in various ways. Yet, who are the people behind the faces we see over and over again in gallery spaces?

Often these muses are women, captured in paint, marble, or paper. However, the women behind these depictions are more than an artistic reproduction. They are often practising artists themselves and women who lead their own lives, not just objects of art.

The five women explored below, and countless others, highlight how a muse is much more than just a source of inspiration. Reinventing the ways in which we look at the ‘muse’, these women have not only been captured in art, but have created artistic legacies for themselves.

Alison Lapper

Despite being known as the figure who Marc Quinn sculpted in his work Alison Lapper Pregnant, that was displayed on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square, Alison Lapper is a great artist in her own right. Being the first disabled student accepted onto the fine art degree course at the University of Brighton, she is also a prominent member of the organisation Mouth and Foot Painting Artists, pushing the traditional and ableist expectations often found in art practises.

Her brightly coloured work often depicts landscapes or swirls of humans dancing and embracing. She often uses herself as a subject in her photography, not only being the muse for Marc Quinn but drawing upon herself as a source of inspiration.

Dora Maar

A key artist in the surrealist movement, Dora Maar is often overshadowed by her relationship to Picasso. Even in her recent exhibition at Tate Modern this year, the name still came attached to the famous artist and his capturing of her in the painting Weeping Woman – an image that has become an iconic work of Picasso and features heavily in his famous work Guernica.

However, Maar was an artist in her own right. Her photography especially pushed boundaries, with her darkroom experimentation and collage editing, creating work that broke with reality, stepping into surrealism. During her relationship with Picasso, they both inspired each other, something seen in Guernica. The step towards political art, the colour scheme, and some of the framing have often been traced back to Maar’s influence. Despite often being branded as Picasso’s mistress and muse, she was much more, and an influential artist in her own right.

Sue Tilley

Famed for being the woman in the Lucian Freud painting that was once the most expensive painting ever sold, Sue Tilley is an extraordinary woman. In a podcast she did in conjunction with Tate, she exposed the joys and realities of being a life model – which is much more than just taking your clothes off.

She also fights against the muse trope of being a nobody made into a ‘somebody’. When Freud’s painting hit the headlines, she was cast as just ‘some jobcentre worker’ who had been put in the limelight, whilst as Tilley says in her own words she’d had a very exciting and interesting life and hardly just the girl from the jobcentre.”

She also talks about how she likes that people know her. Having grown up reading art books, wondering who the people were behind the art, she thought having an open relationship with the artwork could change its depth and meaning. Alongside being a writer, Tilley is also an artist of her own, painting and drawing. Her personal achievements and openness are a testament to the idea that there is more to a muse than just a figure captured in an artwork.

Sandra Bush

Sandra Bush, a former fashion model, is also the subject of her daughter and artist Mickalene Thomas’ work. Often known as Mama Bush, Sandra was not only in the spotlight in her own career path but, through Thomas’s work, has become a unique muse.

Mother and daughter relationships are often explored in many forms of art, but within the visual arts in particular, there is a strong attraction to peering into all aspects of a mother’s life. In this sense, the work created around Bush is not only an extension of Thomas’s artistic vision, but arguably blurs the line of collaboration and documentation of Sandra as a mother to the artist.

This is examined further in Thomas’ short documentary she made about Sandra, entitled Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman. Here Bush is simultaneously under the artistic gaze as a muse, whilst being captured with agency over her own life. It also captures her relationship to being a muse.

Frida Kahlo

Despite being the subject of many paintings and drawings by her husband Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo has become most famous as her own muse. Kahlo’s artwork can be seen as investigations into the self, once stating: I paint self-portraits because I am so often alone, because I am the person I know best.” With the use of objects and clothes surrounding her figure in many paintings, she creates a symbolic insight into herself through her work.

Rather than just producing a few self-portraits, the image of Kahlo appears repeatedly within her own work, creating pieces that seem both simultaneously vulnerable and empowering. The use of art to understand your surroundings and self is not uncommon in many artistic practises, but Kahlo’s continual focus on her own form, which could feel isolating for the viewer, is actually quite comforting. Instead, she was able to create work that explores themes of femininity, gender, fertility, sexuality, and tradition that is accessible to all.

These five women, who have all been captured in art, expose how there is much more to their image than just being a muse. Not only have they sparked conversation about what a ‘muse’ really is, but they also created legacies for themselves through their own achievements, paving the way for women to be known outside of the frame and be recognised for their own successes.

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