ARTIST VS. MUSE (Part Five: The Muse)

Featured image: “Day Sky Grey color study” by Lorraine O’Grady

This is the fifth in a series of posts I’ll be making this month about the singer Grace Jones and her romantic and creative partnership with the artist Jean-Paul Goude. You can find the previous posts here: PART ONE, PART TWO, PART THREE, PART FOUR. Check back on Tuesday for the next installment, and feel free to let me know what you think of the series in a comment.

PART FIVE: The Muse

Seeking precursors for the fruitful yet limiting creative and romantic relationship Grace Jones and Jean-Paul Goude shared, one must resist the close-at-hand distraction of the so-called power couples, the Sonnys and Chers, Beys and Jays, Brangelinas and Bennifers who have recently profited and suffered from public fascination with their private romances. Reach further into the past and your fingers will no doubt graze the outsized figures of Josephine Baker and Sarah Baartman (also known as the “Hottentot Venus”), two women linked across an immense expanse of time by their frequent invocation as symbols of the apparently timeless tradition of white men fetishizing black women’s bodies. Unlike Baartman, a Khoikhoi woman whose true name has been erased by history who was exhibited across Britain and France like some peculiar animal, Baker had some measure of control over the circumstances of her display. The legendary cabaret star left the United States for France in search of career opportunities unhindered by American racism, as Jones did, and refused to perform for segregated audiences when she returned to the country of her birth. (She was later honored by the NAACP for her contribution to the Civil Rights Movement.)

baker in banana skirt
Josephine Baker in her much-discussed banana skirt.

For his part, Goude might be compared to a multitude of French artists who used African subjects and aesthetics to lend their work the appearance of originality in the untutored eyes of Western audiences, as Picasso did with Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. But the truest prototype of the artist/muse mold into which Goude and Jones’ relationship is often squished may be the twenty-year partnership of the poet Charles Baudelaire and the Haitian actress Jeanne Duval. Baudelaire heralded the onset of modernism—the rejection of the nature- and God-worshipping simplicities of romanticism and embrace of the complexities of life in multi-cultural, industrialized cities—while Goude’s unabashedly commercial, uncategorizable artistic production, with elements of photography, painting, collage, and film, epitomizes the post-modernist disdain for clean divisions and clear meaning. Neither of these artists could have made such significant contributions to their fields without the horizon-broadening influence of the women with whom they shared their lives and to whom they dedicated much of their work.

In various poems collected in his best-known work, Les Fleurs du mal (“The Flowers of Evil”), Baudelaire addresses Duval as “dusky beauty,” “witch with ebony flanks,” and “child of the black midnight;” likens her to a “tamed tigress” and an “implacable and cruel beast;” and ascribes to her “the child-like grace of a monkey.” Like Goude, Baudelaire seems to have developed a sexual obsession with his partner on the basis of her perceived exoticism, and transmuted that lust into artistic inspiration. Indisputably, both artists loved their partners, and need no permission to translate their romances into art. The problem is that their art has come to define the women they depict, erasing their minds even as they immortalize their faces. In a 2010 interview with Mousse Magazine, the American conceptual artist Lorraine O’Grady, who contemplated the relationship between Baudelaire and Duval in her photo series Flowers of Evil and Good, lamented the absence of any documentation of Duval’s perspective: “Her words exist only as paraphrase in his poems, her image remains mostly in his quick sketches on scrap paper. It was discouraging. I wanted to do a piece showing the two as the equals I felt they must have been. I knew her in my bones, but how would Jeanne speak?”

Jeanne Duval (Baudelaire's Mistress, Reclining - Manet)
Jeanne Duval as depicted by Édouard Manet.

The muse is always silent. She (the muse is always a “she”) relies upon the artist to speak, paint, write, or draw her into existence. He (the artist is always a “he,” and always white) decides what meaning her words and actions hold, and decides when they are no longer meaningful. The muse has no value once the artist ceases to be inspired by her. The misogyny inherent in this dichotomy, as well as its potential to exacerbate the already-criminal power differentials between white and non-white people, is so obvious that we should have long ago dispensed with the term “muse” altogether, except in reference to the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, as we have attempted to do with the patronizing use of the word “girls” to refer to grown women.

Although he never uses the M word, Goude’s writing in Jungle Fever makes clear that he saw Jones as the endless fount of inspiration he had been waiting for: “Strangely, it was almost as though I had already drawn her before I met her…She was the true representation of all the attractiveness and beauties of the black women I had ever known. They all came together in Grace.” Jones, who has always rejected the description of Goude’s art as racist, displays an awareness of Goude’s interpretation of her as “the ideal vehicle for my work.” “He wanted a living person to whom he could apply his ideas, about desire, blackness, primitive cultures, image, control,” she acknowledges, “someone who was prepared to make their body available.” Even so, Jones argues that she was an equal partner in the creation of her work with Goude because the two of them would discuss concepts before they brought them to life. “There was a lot of talking, and then the idea. It was collaborative,” she writes. “I was not a model. I was a partner in design.”

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