I love it when I come across a book I’d forgotten about. I purchased The Muse by Jessie Burton a few years ago, and as is my tendency, addiction even, to hoard books and novels, I added it to my ‘to read and ongoing’ piles around the house. Somehow it got buried.
As I’ve been decluttering and reorganising I came across it, just at the moment I decided I needed a break from research and non-fiction.
Jessie Burton is now my muse! It’s a fantastic novel, it stimulated my creativity and motivation in many ways, which is auspicious with #NaNoWriMo (national novel writing month) coming up in November, where writers aim to get 50,000 words onto paper or screen.
I ended up studying it anyway, a masterclass in historical, literary fiction, I couldn’t put it down.
The lives of two young women, thirty years apart and from different cultures are juxtaposed and intertwined in a riveting way, all connected to a work of art: Rufina and the Lion.
Maybe I loved it so much because the main protagonist is a writer, and the pivotal character a painter.
Odelle Bastien, a young woman from Trinidad, struggles to find fulfilling work in 1960s London. The story begins with her getting a new job at a respected London art gallery, The Skelton Institute.
Odelle writes in her spare time and works for the enigmatic Marjorie Quick, bearing witness to her descent into a destructive, downward spiral when Lawrie Scott, (Odelle’s boyfriend), brings a mysterious painting to the gallery for valuation; the only thing left to him by his late mother after her un-timely death. Odelle is determined to get to the bottom of Quick’s secrets.
In a parallel story the novel then jumps back to the past, and the life of the Schloss family who have just moved from London to Andalusia in January 1936. They are renting a large finca in Arazuelo, a village near Malaga.
The father, Harold Schloss, a renowned Jewish Viennese art dealer with a gallery in Paris, becomes obsessed by what he thinks is a work of art by a promising local Spanish artist, Isaac Robles. His wife Sarah is a spoilt and unstable English condiment heiress, and their daughter, Olive, a painter, is coming to terms with her formidable artistic ability.
To her surprise, Olive finds the rural Spanish setting and the presence of their close neighbours, Isaac and Teresa Robles inspires her to express her authentic self. Olive has a letter from the Slade art school in her possession, but she has not shown it to her father, fearing his lack of approval, but also she does not wish to leave Spain and her lover, who also happens to be her muse…
Olive paints in secret, only Teresa is party to her acts of creation. Teresa burns with indignation for her friend’s anonymity – that her talent goes unacknowledged and unappreciated. Her subversive actions on Olive’s behalf are the crucible of how events unfold, of the inevitable apocryphal attributions.
Olive has a hard time persuading her reluctant muse to take the credit for her art.
Harold Schloss entices Peggy Guggenheim in Venice (a real person and collector) to view the works that he believes are by Isaac Robles.
As Isaac and his younger sister Teresa become deeply involved in the complex dynamics of the Schloss family, they are all ultimately drawn into the Spanish civil war with devastating consequences.
Apart from being a brilliant and beautifully written story, The Muse subtly revealed and revelled in the themes of identity, provenance, the restitution of valuable paintings suspected of being stolen by the Nazis, the circumstances surrounding the creation of art and the cult of the artist.
Very often an artist’s appeal and allure increases after their death, although some are fortunate to become legends in their own lifetime. Death certainly creates and intensifies icons…
I’d like to think I’d hang a piece of art mainly because I loved to look at it, not because of who painted it, but very often the two are not mutually exclusive. Rarity adds value, as does sentimental attachment.
The Muse makes you think about what art’s intrinsic value is: the actual work of art itself, which once completed stands independent from the artist, or whether that value should be tied to the person who made it; their story and the ‘journey’ of the work post creation.Tweet
The idea of provenance isn’t unique to the art world, but is also applied in literature, music composition and the purchase of instruments. I readily admit that given the choice, I would love to own a violin made by Stradivarius or Guarneri rather than one produced by an unknown luthier. Their quality has been proven over the centuries.
Maybe time is a factor in how we appreciate art. Trends and tastes change, but geniuses never go out of fashion.
Can we really separate a purely aesthetic desire from financial value?
Any creative endeavour, whether we like it or not, is bound by some degree to the person who originated it.
Romantic notions tend to creep in when purchasing art and sculpture. We are naturally attracted to the story behind a work of art, it heightens our understanding of it, gives us context to value and appreciate it. Is it right that there may come a point when the provenance or story behind a work is perceived as more important and valuable than the work itself?
Provenance is solely a human benchmark.
I think Banksy was very astute to keep his identity a secret. It’s his trademark signature next to street art that has popped up on a wall or tube train overnight that almost seems to excite people as much as his original pictures…
And what about the artist? What value do they imbibe from their creative efforts?
Certainly they deserve financial remuneration, admiration and respect. Some of these external blessings never flow to an artist. So in many cases the inner joy of creating is paramount. Nothing is certain.
It’s hard to believe that Vincent van Gogh only sold a handful of art works in his life, but now his colourful and distinctive oeuvre is one of the most sought after and popular in the world. How much value did he place in his own ability versus other people’s opinions? Vincent struggled with his mental health, but he was compelled to paint regardless.
Real life scenarios in the art world where a lost masterpiece has been found, and subsequently authenticated, demonstrate how excitement builds and a bidding frenzy usually ensues…
Some amazing stories about lost and recovered masterpieces. And who wishes they had a Renaissance masterpiece hanging on the wall?
For various reasons authors sometimes choose to write under a pseudonym. J.K. Rowling penned the Cormoran Strike crime novels as Robert Galbraith, with modest sales. But once her true identity became public knowledge sales took a startling upward trajectory.
Like writing, art is highly subjective, and we each look at a work of art through our own prism or perceptive lens. Picasso is a big deal, but I don’t personally gravitate to his work. But I love the likes of Monet, Pissarro, van Gogh, Klimt, Alma-Tadema, Waterhouse, and well, I could go on.
In The Muse, Odelle becomes choked up about not being good enough. And who hasn’t experienced Imposter Syndrome to some extent at least once in their life?
Jessie Burton summed up these feelings that can capture and anchor a creative soul on the seabed of writer’s block.
“She had told me that the approval of other people should never be my goal.”
“You’re not walking around with a golden halo beaming out of you depending on the power of your paragraph. You don’t come into it, once someone else is reading. It stands apart from you. Don’t let your ability drag you down, don’t hang it round your neck like an albatross.”
“Like most artists, everything I produced was connected to who I was – and so I suffered according to how my work was received. The idea that anyone might be able to detach their personal value from their public output was revolutionary. I didn’t know if it was possible, even desirable. Surely it would affect the quality of the work? Still, I knew I’d gone too far in the opposite direction, and something had to change. Ever since I could pick up a pen, other people’s pleasure was how I’d garnered attention and defined success. When I began receiving public acknowledgement for a private act, something was essentially lost. My writing became the axis upon which all my identity and happiness hinged. It was not outward-looking, a self-conscious performance. I was asked to repeat the pleasure for people, again and again, until the facsimile of my act became the act itself.”
“…I’d been writing so long for the particular purpose of being approved that I’d forgotten the genesis of my impulse; unbothered, pure creation, existing outside the parameters of success and failure. And somewhere along the line, this being ‘good’ had come to paralyse my belief that I could write at all.”Jessie Burton, The Muse
My takeaways are that we have to get out of our own way, have faith in our abilities, try to learn from the creative process and above all, enjoy it.
If every artist, writer or musician had decided to quit their projects out of fear of rejection or lack of recognition there would be no culture for us to enjoy, no legacy of human creative expression, no muses to inspire future generations.