Artists and their muses — such fabled relationships, so fraught with excitement, creativity, and yes… scandal. Let’s meet some of the enchanting, free-spirited, tortured women and men that inspired great artists to do great works of art. A warning: Some of our muses are more bohemian than others, so this one’s not for the sensitive types. Another warning: Some are more tragic than others, so break out the tissues now. From Gala to Eddie to Kiki to La Cicciolina, here come the muses, their triumphs and pitfalls in tow.
Ilona Staller a.k.a. La Cicciolina
By the time Jeff Koons married Hungarian-born Italian blond bombshell “La Ciccolina” (“Cuddles”), she had achieved notoriety as both a hardcore porn actress and a member of parliament, simultaneously. She was the first to bare her breasts on Italian TV, a member of Italy’s first Green Party, then a Libertarian, then a founding member of the “Party of Love” — protesting nuclear power, championing human rights, and offering to sleep with Saddam Hussein in exchange for peace. Then, there was more hardcore porn, that is, Jeff Koons’ Made In Heaven project — explicit XXX painting and sculptures of the couples’ antics, shocking the 1990 Venice Biennale. They married in 1991. After the marriage soured, Staller took off to Italy with their 2-year-old son Ludwig Maximillian, and a grim custody battle lead to the founding of the Koons Family Institute on International Law and Policy. Scandalous all around!
Russian-born “Gala,” aka Elena Ivanovna Diakonova, met the poet Paul Éluard at a sanitarium in Switzerland when they were both teenagers. The two later married, caroused with the artists of the Surrealist movement, and lived in a ménage à trois with Max Ernst for three years in the ’20s. A young, Spanish up-and-comer ten years Gala’s junior broke up that marriage. Salvador Dalí, allegedly a virgin, was madly in love. He painted her. He signed his paintings “(i)t is mostly with your blood, Gala, that I paint my pictures.” And, as her new husband he tolerated, nay, he encouraged her extramarital affairs with younger men for decades to come, including Gala’s generous dalliance with “Jesus Christ Superstar”/Black Sabbath singer/future televangelist Jeff Fenholt. Uh… Rowr?
Kiki de Montparnasse
Alice Ernestine Prin earned her fame posing nude for sculptors at the age of 14, soon becoming a regular in the Parisian Montparnasse art scene as a model and a bohemian free-spirit, hence the moniker Kiki de Montparnasse. She played muse to Chaim Soutine, Moise Kisling, Jean Cocteau, and oh so many more. Man Ray made hundreds of portraits of and with her in the 1920s, some of them seriously kinky. Kiki was also a painter, a cabaret performer, a nightclub singer, and enticing memoirist and, at 28, was crowned the Queen of Montparnasse. If not for the Nazi occupation of Paris, a Queen she’d remain.
The cubist muse behind some of the world’s most expensive paintings, a teenaged Marie-Thérèse Walter began her secret relationship with a then 45-year-old Picasso in the late 1920s. Picasso’s Russian ballerina wife left him once Marie’s adulterous baby bump popped up. When the crusty, lusty Picasso moved on to a “dark” and “weepy” French photographer, she and Marie-Thérèse had a confrontation that turned into a wrestling match over him — as the master was painting Guernica. And there you thought its conception was all heavy and serious, meanwhile Picasso was enjoying “one of his choicest memories.”
Francis Bacon caught his future younger lover robbing his house, as the legend goes. The artist’s relationship with the rugged thief bred incredible works, but their mutual borderline alcoholism caused friction. Bacon would be cruel and dismissive, saying that the paintings of George Dyer gave meaning to the gent’s “brief interlude between life and death” and his “sophisticated” friends treated Dyer like a worn-out novelty. There were scenes. There were scandals. During Bacon’s grand retrospective in Paris, Dyer planted cannabis on Bacon and tipped off the cops. He then succeeded in his final suicide attempt. Love is the devil, isn’t it?
Edie Sedgwick really was a “Poor Little Rich Girl.” The enchanting socialite, model, heiress, and most notably, Andy Warhol superstar, inherited a family history of suicide, mental illness, and abuse. The creative apple of Warhol’s eye (for a while, at least), she starred in his films, charmed party-goers by his side, and sprayed her brown hair silver to match his wigs. When their parasitical friendship soured, Warhol bitingly revealed that Edie’s lover Bob Dylan had secretly married Sara Lownds, breaking her heart for a fight. The indelible starlet spent her last years in and out of psychiatric institutions, off and on barbiturates. She burned out at 28.
On a more positive note, here’s Lee Miller. She lived with Man Ray in Paris as a student, a lover, a fruitful collaborator, and a muse. Before Man Ray, Lee had already been a successful fashion model in New York City, a photographer in France, a correspondent for Vogue, and the first real person to appear in an ad for menstrual hygiene, which caused quite the scandal in 1928 America. Ooooh… After Man Ray, she worked with LIFE photographer David E. Scherman, who took the notorious portrait of her bathing at Adolf Hitler’s Munich apartment the day he committed suicide in Berlin.
Leonardo Da Vinci’s artist model/muse/pupil/servant Gian Giacomo, appropriately nicknamed “Salai” (“the little devil”), lived with him for thirty years. He described a deep relationship with the handsome Salai in his letters, one that was speculated since the 16th century to have been erotic, not helped by that one time they got in trouble.
John Singer Sargent’s 1884 painting of “Madame X” — the vibrant, married socialite Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, who many an artist allegedly “stalked” — caused an uproar at the Paris Salon. All that flesh! All that shameless vivaciousness! The 7-foot-tall, full-length portrait devastated Sargent’s career and enraged Gautreau’s relatives. Now check out the original sexier vision, with the jeweled strap sexily hanging off her sexy shoulder. Oh my!
And now, for a tale from Greek mythology of Pygmalion and Galatea, the ultimate parable of an artist projecting his throbbing ego on his muse, so classically… anti-feminist. Viciously disinterested in mortal women, Pygmalion carves himself the perfect species out of ivory. Venus brings her to life. They have kids. So on. So forth. Sigh… For centuries, literary re-interpreters have been trying to emancipate this muse from her artist-maker. Go, Galatea! Live! Be free! Wouldn’t that be just so scandalous?