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Uma Thurman, Quentin Tarantino, and the myth of the muse

The muse-auteur relationship has a fraught history, and has created a fractured power dynamic across art and culture

Just like the rest of us, Uma Thurman is angry. It was palpable in her much-discussed red carpet interview at the Parisian Woman premiere, and came even more into focus in this week’s New York Times profile, in which she detailed her abusive experiences with Harvey Weinstein, and assault at the hands of an unnamed actor. In a shock revelation, she also cast a cold new light on her working relationship with the director Quentin Tarantino. The director who had termed Thurman his “muse” – going so far as referencing the likes of Hitchcock and Tippi Hedren – had put her in a “death trap” for a Kill Bill car stunt. Thurman’s anxieties were brushed aside, and she was coerced into doing the stunt by Tarantino and crew. Recently released video footage alongside the NYT article shows how Thurman veered off track in the blue convertible, her head swinging backwards as the car sped into a tree. All she’d asked for was a stunt driver, and she received permanent injury to her knees and neck. It’s reflective of a complicated creative relationship that’s been played out again and again by the muse and artist. 

The “blood-splattered bride” had indeed been bloodied, though this time the distinct lines between life and fiction had been blurred. The muse-auteur relationship was, not for the first or last time, shorthand for abuse and manipulation. Just like the fashion industry, Hollywood is predicated on an abusive, imbalanced dynamic that’s displayed across our art and culture.

The myth of the muse is one that has long been propagated by cinema, art, and popular culture as an inevitable byproduct of artistic genius. The muse – most often female, because of course – has played a key role in fulfilling the fantasies of powerful and influential men, both as producers and as audience members. Picasso had Marie-Therese Walter, Rossetti had Elizabeth Siddal, the surrealists had their “girlfriends”, and Woody Allen’s list of muses is a seemingly endless roll-call of A-List women, all of whom at the time of casting captured a particular zeitgeist within Hollywood. Though “manic pixie dream girls” are now an outdated relic in the terminology of cinema, in art and culture, the “muse” remains permanently in vogue. But in 2018, we have to ask ourselves, how long can the trope maintain its appeal?

Historical narratives imbue the muse with the same glamour and romance reserved for contemporary celebrities. Turbulent, difficult, and at the forefront of significant cultural epochs within art and cinema, we view them through the (often) male gaze of the artist or auteur: Leocadia Weiss, the muse, young lover, and employed housekeeper of Francisco Goya, or Egon Schiele’s lover, model Wally Neuzil. We are enchanted by them, and often fail to realise the identity of ‘the muse’ as an artist in their own right. Sometimes they’re little more than a lens to examine the artist – as in the work of sculptors Camille Claudel and Auguste Rodin, where their tumultuous relationship, pain, and passion is echoed in their art.

“The term muse no longer retains the same sheen of glamour when we unpack the distinct lack of autonomy”

Commonly maligned to the role of girlfriend or lover, muses share a difficult relationship with history, being personified as ‘crazy’, ‘troubled’, or ‘irrational’ if they don’t comply with the set narrative they are given. At worst, they are cast aside and forgotten almost entirely. Christi Päffgen, better known as Nico of Velvet Underground fame, was referred to by her former ‘auteur’ Andy Warhol as “a fat junkie that disappeared”. “Regrets? I have no regrets, except that I was born a woman instead of a man,” Nico said herself back in 1983, showing how deeply ingrained the male-as-auteur mindset is. Tippi Hedren was at the mercy of Alfred Hitchcock’s jealousy, and artists such as Kay Sage and Dorothea Tanning have been discarded as the wives or mistresses of their male Surrealist counterparts. That their art is just as worthy of acclaim as Max Ernst et al seems to have been forgotten in the grand narrative of art history.

Even those that been remembered, like Elizabeth Siddal – an artist in her own right, yet forever captured within the mind's eye as Pre-Raphaelite artist John William Waterhouse’s drowned and dead Ophelia – have the troubling and abusive aspects of their muse/auteur relationship glossed over. The term “muse” no longer retains the same sheen of glamour when we unpack the distinct lack of autonomy that's behind it.

Even so, there are muse and artist dynamics that definitely work. Michelle Olley was termed ‘the muse’ of Alexander McQueen’s now legendary SS01 show, ‘VOSS’, and said of her experience that “it was a little moment where everything was possible.” Salvador Dali at times signed both his name and his artistic subject Gala Diakonova on works. There are also those who have questioned who plays the power structure of the muse, with Marina Abramovic using her ex-partner Ulay as a catalyst for many of her performances. Since the NYT article, Thurman has come out to praise Tarantino for releasing the video and taking responsibility – it’s an example of a muse/auteur dynamic that can be protective and fulfilling for both. Ultimately, when the muse/artist relationship works as it should, as a creative liaison, there’s an agency and autonomy awarded to both parties.

For every Ulay and Marina, there remains a Mia Farrow and Woody Allen. ‘Muse Abuse’ is even categorised as a official TV trope. In the wake of #MeToo, we have to question, and ultimately revisit, why we are so fascinated by the muse. What were once mentioned as the ‘quirks’ of difficult-but-genius artists or directors are now insidious reminders of the actions of powerful men previously empowered by a culture of silence – remember the fact that Tarantino strangled Diane Kruger himself in scenes for Inglourious Basterds. With the testimony of Thurman ringing in the ears of the public consciousness, perhaps other muses will feel emboldened to take back control.