I am thrilled to announce that I am curating 2023’s edition of Platform at London Art Fair with the theme, ‘Reframing the Muse’! The exhibition, based on my recently published book ‘Muse’ (Penguin, 2022), will present 8 galleries whose artists collaborate with inspiring individuals, reframing the muse as an empowered and active agent in the story of art.
“For me a ‘muse’ is a starting point, the source of inspiration”, says Iranian artist Golnaz Afraz. She paints symbolic portraits of women from her home country, sharing their protests against censorship. She’s among 20 artists exhibiting in this year’s edition of Platform, ‘Reframing the Muse’, which invites viewers to consider the instrumental role played by diverse, real-life individuals, past and present, beyond the frame in which they are immortalised.
Today, our perception of the muse is that of a powerless female model, at the mercy of an influential and older male artist. But this trope, perpetuated by popular culture and the media, is a romanticised myth. Far from posing silently, muses have brought emotional support, intellectual energy, career-changing creativity and practical help to artists, and they continue to do so.
Art history’s most enduring subject, the muse has its origins in Ancient Greece: on Mount Olympos there were 9 goddesses, whom artists had to invoke for literary, artistic and musical inspiration. Richard Twose, of Gala Fine Art, summons this divine power in ‘The Three Graces’, for which the Wordsworth sisters Flora and Imy, and their mother Bun, dressed up in party-wear.
“I wanted to capture their very close, fun and above all loving relationship. But I also wanted to show something more, something very special and deeply personal, that existed perfectly well without me, that I was allowed in to glimpse” – Richard Twose
Similarly, David Messum Fine Art presents the paintings of Steve des Landes, who portrays strong female protagonists in enchanting, fairy tale-like narratives. ‘Red Shoes’ was inspired by his mother: “she wanted to be an actress and I remember her putting on makeup at the dressing table, symbolic of a woman’s need to make herself up to play a role. The red shoes hint at times past, the reality after the dancing stops.”
Motherhood is a central theme in Platform, with an emphasis on the female gaze. Rebecca Hossack Art Gallery are showing Nikoleta Sekulovic, an artist-mother who has depicted a close circle of friends, all parents, who “chose to collaborate” with her. Subverting the tradition of Odalisque portraiture, she has replaced eroticised female figures of fantasy with “women who have inspirations, ambitions and an inner drive.” Having shed their youthful inhibitions, these women “were models that posed with pride and no pretence. They could be majestic.”
Courtesy of Cynthia Corbett Gallery, Ashley January’s own traumatic pregnancy and the survival of her prematurely-born son informs her unfiltered paintings of Black mothers and children. Centring their experiences, with motifs structured around the rituals of care, she addresses the Black maternal mortality crisis in America, where Black women are three to four times more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications than white women.
The personal and political intertwine in many of the artworks on show. Shtager Gallery are exhibiting Katya Granova, who works from family archive photographs as a means of “connecting” with her family history and a different era”. There’s a hauntingly nostalgic atmosphere to paintings such as ‘Grandma reading her speech’, in which the artist addresses conflicting political positions within the family. “Painting her past gives access to those complex feelings”, the artist explains.
Many muses carry messages, by the nature of their very representation. Charlie Smith London are exhibiting works from Hugh Mendes’s ‘Obituaries’ series, in which he “pays homage to heroes and mentors”, from Frida Kahlo to Paula Rego. Similarly, Kate Milsom celebrates the “unsung women in history”, weaving the stories of these subjects into elaborate tapestry-styled paintings. ‘Valour, Vision and Veracity’ spotlights the soldier Hannah Snell, scientist Sophie Brahe and palaeontologist, Mary Anning.
Gala Fine Art are also showing powerful new work by Golnaz Afraz, whose muses are young Iranian women protesters. Through symbolic layers of colour, faces hidden by fruit and leaves, and arresting hair-cutting imagery, Afraz confronts the fact that her subjects are “constantly obliged to censor themselves, especially in Iran”, while amplifying their cries against the oppressive regime.
Carla Kranendonk, represented by Rebecca Hossack Gallery, is also intent on telling the “stories” of her muses, who are family or friends. Against vibrant, richly-patterned backgrounds, West African women and men are elevated to icon status, as a means of displaying their important status in society and a culture defined, in part, by its distinctive textile traditions.
In contrast, the languorously reclining nude models of Francesca Currie, represented by Signet Contemporary Art, convey ease and content. Smiling at the viewer are couple ‘Lewis and Roma’, evoking a closeness not only between one another but also with the artist. “Whenever someone sits for me it’s always an intimate moment. My aim is to create a space where they can be their most relaxed and truest self”, Currie reveals.
RAW Editions are showcasing more male muses, including the curator, ex-partner and former studio manager of David Hockney, Gregory Evans, who appears with his instantly recognisable Renaissance-curled hair in ‘Reclining Figure’. When asked in interview who the love of his life was, Hockney responded, ‘Maybe Gregory’.
Opie, on the other hand, has taken himself as his own nude muse with the playful sculpture ‘Julian Nude Arms Crossed’. It’s a statement that women artists have made throughout the centuries, using their image as a rebellious means of asserting their identity. Isabelle van Zeijl, takes up this mantle today through striking photographic self-portraits. Having experienced first-hand sex-based prejudice and violence, van Zeijl redefines feminine power through her lens, acting as survivor, artist and subject in ‘I LOVE HER I’.
Audiences, too, are invited to participate as they pose before the interactive mirror, ‘No Photos Please’ by Eve de Haan. “This piece is all about my conflicting relationship with social media. The real question is how can an app make you feel like you need to share private moments with the whole world, and to what avail?” the artist asks. As the “No” flickers on and off, this clever work of art requires reflection, in both senses of the term, from the collaborative viewer, proving that artists still need their muse.
This ‘MUSE ‘Reframing the Muse’ Platform will be accompanied by an events programme, including a related performance and a panel discussion in partnership with Sotheby’s Institute of Art, about the role of the muse in the modern world.
London Art Fair runs from18 – 22 January 2023 at the Business Design Centre, Islington, London.