‘Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story / of that man skilled in all ways of contending, / the wanderer, harried for years on end’. Homer had it right: to tell a story with skill and elegance (in this case, the meandering tale of the Greek hero Odysseus), the artist must be both vessel and tuning fork. Today, ‘muses’ are mentioned everywhere, yet they have strayed far from the ancient notion of powerful beings with agency all their own, duly invoked and credited. Instead of denoting nine immortal figures, each with her own discipline, the title tends to refer to earthly associates of this eminent fashion designer or that exalted musician. How, then, might we reconceive what the term stands for, at a time in which divine inspiration is generally given short shrift? The process, inevitably, brings the Muses down to earth and locates them broadly across it, for artistic inspiration as we now understand it exists between artists, as well as across disciplines and vast cultural and geographic gulfs. Art in the modern era draws not on a single divine source but on a range of sometimes complex and even contentious relationships—one person’s intertextuality can be another’s breach of copyright or good faith. Perhaps the idea of the Muse might be democratised—serving those of us who are not necessarily artists but who draw succour and energy from the works of others who create and inspire. When we consider whether Susan Sontag was the true author of Philip Rieff’s Freud: The Mind of the Moralist, or the role natural sites and forms can play in guiding architects and planners, or the stunning refiguration of Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock motifs in French Impressionism, the Muse might be a welcome idea, freeing us both to imagine a touch more inexplicable magic in the world and to admit a measure of humility and indebtedness to others.
Indigenous cultures are consistently endangered by the homogenising forces of global capitalism, which too often pit people against one another, undervalues hand-craft and disrupts the passage of traditional knowledge from one generation to the next. Sante Fe’s International Folk Art Market (IFAM) aims to stem this tide by celebrating, and finding a wider buyership for, the intricate, intimate work of folk artists from all over the world. Participants find an extraordinary level of support and encouragement, which positively impacts their earning potential. More than 2,000 dedicated volunteers mentor artisans in developing countries throughout the year, their efforts culminating in a marketplace event each July (the next one runs from 10 to 12 July 2020), with 150 artists from 60 countries selected to participate. Those 150 represent a much larger segment of their communities; IFAM estimates that they help bolster the economic security of up to roughly 26,000 members of artist cooperatives and a quarter million family and community members. At least 20,000 visitors attend IFAM each year, purchasing three million dollars’ worth of wares. This money, supplemented by incidental donations, goes toward the construction of bridges, wells and schools in the artists’ home countries. The artisan sector is the developing world’s second-largest industry, and IFAM proves how potently artisans can effect social change, and how even a modest measure of support can secure them in their creative livelihoods. In 2019, IFAM honoured El Grupo Bayate, an artist collective in Mella, Cuba, that includes a baker, a policeman, an accountant, and a fisherman, all making boldly coloured representational paintings of village life. Another prize recipient was Serge Jolimeau, from Croix-des-Bouquets, Haiti, whose traditional sculptural metalwork, often formed from steel drums, has an astonishing complexity and the fine filigree of lace.
Jochen Zeitz, the former CEO of Puma and a cofounder (with Sir Richard Branson) of business and development nonprofit The B Team, has supported both contemporary art and conservation: his robust, diverse collection of works by artists from Africa and its diaspora is on lifetime loan to Cape Town’s Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, and both interests have converged in the MOCAA Artist in Residence Programme on the Laikipia Plateau, in Kenya, where artists are invited to stay and create new work. The residency is at Segera, one of Africa’s most dramatically beautiful safari locations, with Mount Kenya to the east and the Great Rift Valley to the west, as well as savannah plains, waterfalls and botanical gardens to offer abundant inspiration. Artists whose work engages with the identity, geography, history and discourse of the continent can take immersive steps well beyond just gazing at the magnitude of the landscape around them—wildlife scientists are available for consultation, and there are many opportunities, structured as well as self-directed, to engage with the area’s surrounding communities and cultures. Other guests at Segera get a chance to meet—via meals, studio visits, artist’s talks and nature walks—such artists as Hank Willis Thomas and Peterson Kamwathi. Kamwathi, Segera’s very first artist in residence, in 2015, noted that it was the first fellowship program he was able to attend ‘within the boundaries of my own country.’
Varda by Agnès (2019) is the French filmmaker Agnès Varda’s own outstanding recap of her oeuvre, and includes scenes and clips from 20 previous works, from Uncle Yanco to Faces Places. Sprightly till the end, Varda, who died in March at the age of 90, framed her final film as a masterclass presented to eager acolytes gathered in a French opera house. In a vermilion blouse, her signature bowl cut dyed magenta at the tips with several inches of grown-out silver at the crown, Varda looks up into the eaves and ventures, ‘There may be children of paradise up there’, setting the tone for a film that is warm, inviting and even a little bit magical. What first appears to be a well-tempered survey of a filmography soon transforms into something wilder and funnier. Varda’s career began with the French New Wave classic Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962) and continued through an impressive variety of titles that are less well known. The 1985 film Vagabond makes for one of the finest of these later revisitations. Set to music by Joanna Bruzdowicz, it includes 13 unforgettable, intimate, subtly erratic tracking shots, which disorient the viewer by moving right to left. In Varda by Agnès, behind-the-scenes footage dissects these shots, which disorient the viewer by moving from right to left (‘jarring’, says Varda, ‘because it is the opposite of how we read in the West’), keeping pace with Sandrine Bonnaire’s lonely trudge. ‘I told the story of a girl in a rage… an enraged loner’, Varda tells the audience. ‘A lot of guys were out on the road. It was kind of in fashion. I’d noticed women were also backpacking. I wanted to film freedom and filth.’ Bonnaire had appeared in Maurice Pialat’s To Our Loves and was just 17 when Varda cast her. ‘A very lovely surprise, Sandrine has arrived’, Varda announces from the middle of a rainy field, where she and Bonnaire, now in her early fifties, sit sharing a yellow quilt, holding umbrellas. Bonnaire recalls that there was no explanatory backstory for her debut: she learned how to build a fire, pitch a tent, repair her boots, prune grapevines—a toughening-up she didn’t fully appreciate at the time. ‘I remember at one point, I’d dug up a whole garden patch and had blisters. I said, “Real blisters, like you wanted!” ’ Varda also returns to the beach that inspired The Beaches of Agnès (2008), which tenderly considers the wages and rewards of ageing; this time, the beach is full of children cartwheeling and imitating birdcalls, Varda solid in her director’s chair, basking in the cheerful spectacle. In the comedy One Hundred and One Nights (1995), Varda cast Robert De Niro opposite Catherine Deneuve; De Niro impressed Varda by learning his French lines phonetically, by waking up at 4 a.m. for his single day on set and by being willing to flop into a pond. The film itself was a box-office flop, and kudos to Varda for embracing her mistakes—she doesn’t mince words about failure. The filmmaker’s self-excavation is not an act of navel-gazing; it is always connected to the world beyond her tiny person. ‘Others interest me more’, she tells the audience. Varda by Agnès has an irrepressible joie de vivre: Varda was legendarily loquacious, and fittingly, her last film gives her the last word. She shows what it means to serve as one’s own sui generis inspiration.
Through 26 January 2020, the British Museum is exhibiting ‘Inspired by the East: How the Islamic world influenced Western art’, a wide-ranging show that is the product of a collaboration with the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia (where it will be on view from 20 June to 20 October 2020). Charting 500 years of artistic exchange, the show ends in the present day with work by four contemporary female artists from the Middle East and North Africa, among them the Turkish videographer İnci Eviner and the Moroccan painter and photographer Lalla Essaydi. Essaydi’s triptych Les Femmes du Maroc alludes to Eugène Delacroix’s Femmes d’Alger—a riot of sumptuous colour and nudity—to subvert the 19th-century Orientalist tropes of harem paintings. Essaydi’s version is monochromatic and dust-coloured, her women fully clothed, her canvas marked with Arabic characters. It is a reclamation of representation, a riposte that stands alone (you don’t need to know that the painting responds to Delacroix to feel the intensity of its statement). A curatorial enterprise such as this inevitably rubs up against Edward Said’s immensely influential Orientalism (1978), in which the Palestinian-American academic critiques Western depictions of the East; his focus was on literature and politics, whereas the curators of the British Museum’s show are concerned with correspondences in and among imageries, eager to take on misrepresentation but also interested in aspects of the exchange that were more reciprocal and respectful, driven by diverse forces such as diplomacy, travel for pleasure and even armed conflict. That ‘Inspired by the East’ includes not just paintings but also decorative arts, interior design, glass and ceramics, clothing and textiles, jewellery and photography indicates the range and creativity of these influences. A floral motif on tiles by the English designer William De Morgan, for example, can be exactingly traced to a 17th-century İznik plate. From objects by early Western pilgrims in the Holy Land to Turkish and Iranian ceramics refigured by 19th-century Western artists, the richness on display may necessitate more than one visit.
By 1966, Bob Dylan had released three albums of masterly music, gone polarisingly electric at the Newport Folk Festival and performed all over the United States and Europe. In July of that year, he nearly died in a motorcycle accident, and while convalescing for several months in the basement of a house in West Saugerties, New York, he recorded, along with his friends Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel and Robbie Robertson, an assortment of traditional covers, funny ditties, improvisations and dozens of polished songs, including ‘I Shall Be Released’ and ‘The Mighty Quinn’. Rumours of the recordings created a new sector in the music business: the bootleg record. Fans sought out the tracks in dribs and drabs, and in 1975, Columbia Records finally released just sixteen—The Basement Tapes. In 2014, a group of musicians convened to collaborate on a project inspired by a trove of recently rediscovered lyrics from the 1966 session. Writing new music set to Dylan’s lines, and with his blessing, these musicians produced Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes. Produced by longtime Dylan collaborator T Bone Burnett, Lost on the River is addictive from the first listen and features music by a range of estimable performers, such as Elvis Costello, Rhiannon Giddens (Carolina Chocolate Drops), Taylor Goldsmith (Dawes), Jim James (My Morning Jacket) and Marcus Mumford (Mumford & Sons). Per Burnett: ‘What transpired during [the] two weeks [we spent recording] was amazing for all of us. There was a deep well of generosity and support in the studio at all times, which reflected the tremendous trust and generosity shown by Bob in sharing these lyrics with us in the first place.’ Standout tracks include Giddens’ ‘Spanish Mary’ and James’ ‘Down on the Bottom’.
The poet Robert Lowell is remembered not only for his incandescent poetry but also for his tangled personal life—he was manic-depressive and forever embroiled in complex romantic relationships. The women who captivated him were, for the most part, his intellectual equals: Jean Stafford, Elizabeth Hardwick, Elizabeth Bishop, Lady Caroline Blackwood. Hardwick, interviewed by The Paris Review in 1985, ventured that ‘Cal’—a boarding-school nickname Lowell never shed—‘liked women writers and I don’t think he ever had a true interest in a woman who wasn’t a writer—an odd turn-on indeed... Women writers don’t tend to be passive vessels or wives, saying, “Oh, that’s good, dear.” ’ Their 23-year marriage was stormy, rocked by Lowell’s 20 or so psychiatric hospitalisations and associated dysfunctional behaviours. It ended when Lowell left Hardwick for Blackwood, then plundered the letters Hardwick sent in the aftermath for language and material that he folded and embroidered into The Dolphin (1973), which won a Pulitzer Prize. The decision to use Hardwick’s letters was a twist of the knife that got Lowell in trouble with two poets who had been dear and loyal friends, Elizabeth Bishop and Adrienne Rich. Lowell sent Bishop the poems he intended to include in The Dolphin, and she replied that his use of Hardwick’s voice was a step too far. ‘One can use one’s life as material—one does, anyway—but these letters—aren’t you violating a trust?’ she asked. ‘If you were given permission—if you hadn’t changed them… etc. But art just isn’t worth that much.’ She got through to Lowell; he did make some changes protective of Hardwick. And, curiously, The Dolphin contains some passages attributed to Hardwick that it turns out Lowell invented whole cloth. He imagined, rather than quoted, Hardwick writing to him, ‘You can’t carry your talent with you like a suitcase. / Don’t you dare mail us the love your life denies; / do you really know what you have done?’ A different but no less entrancing form of exchange can be found in the collection of Lowell and Bishop’s correspondence, Words in Air (2008), which is playful, erudite and full of love—the mainly platonic love Bishop and Lowell had for each other and the abiding, almost spiritual love they had for certain contemporaries (Marianne Moore, John Berryman) as well as departed greats (Gerard Manley Hopkins, Emily Dickinson).
Illustrations by Audrey Helen Weber
‘To me the Muses truly gave / An envied and a happy lot… ’