“Perhaps because of the vagaries of beauty as a concept, art historians avoid the word ‘beauty’ like the plague,” Richard R. Brettell writes in his book On Modern Beauty. Nevertheless, he undertakes to arrive at a deeper understanding of modernity and beauty through a study of the evocations of these two concepts at the hands of important artists in the modern era. It is a novel idea, a way to reconcile beauty embodied in a work of art: as it is expressed by the artist and as it is experienced by the beholder.
In advance of Sotheby’s Modern Evening Auction (27 April, Hong Kong), we take a look at a selection of paintings by modern art masters that celebrate the muses who have been the source of their artistic inspiration. Through these works, we sense the resonance and emotional response from the artists’ relationships to their subjects, expressed in a powerful statement of enduring beauty.
The women of Pablo Picasso’s life were the fulcrum of his genius, essential to his creative and intellectual processes. Dora Maar was more than a muse to Picasso, however. When they first met in 1935, he was in a relationship with Marie-Thérèse Walter and still married to Olga Khokhlova. Maar was an up-and-coming photographer 26 years his junior who had already made a name in Italy's Surrealist circles. With her coquettish manner and flair for Spanish, she was a challenge and quickly captivated the much more established Picasso. She was a source of artistic and intellectual stimulation and challenge. He painted Dora Maar (1939) when she had become a dominant presence. Their tumultuous romantic affair was fraught with insecurities, causing him to lend her a persistently melancholy mien. “For me she’s the weeping woman,” Picasso famously said. “For years I’ve painted her in tortured forms, not through sadism, and not with pleasure, either; just obeying a vision that forced itself on me. It was a deep reality, not a superficial one.” Yet, Dora Maar holds a mirror to Maar's strength. She meets the beholder’s gaze with an air of confidence and elegance. Her fragmented eyes and pursed lips are contemplative and inscrutable. It is a stunning portrait of sharp contrasts, which reflects the coexistence of conflict and inspiration in their relationship.
Love in a Time of War: Picasso’s Masterpiece Dora Maar
Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Baigneuse accoudée (1882) heralded a theme that would become emblematic of his oeuvre: the nude. The composition was a departure from his hitherto Impressionist style, featuring a more sculpturesque female body that was decidedly distinct from the background. Renoir’s muse was none other than Aline Charigot, a woman that would later become his wife. Depicted in a casual, almost unfussy manner, her porcelain skin cuts a dramatic juxtaposition to the atmospheric backdrop, which was described by Arsène Alexandre, the first owner of the picture, as “shimmering with gold, emeralds and rubies”. The jewel-toned picture serves as a metaphor, perhaps, for the golden subject – one who was to become a mainstay in his life and his paintings. Charigot shines through as the protagonist in a direct antithesis to the style adopted by Renoir’s contemporaries, her contours earning a considered sensuality by way of delicate brush strokes.
Auguste Rodin’s Éternel Printemps (1884) is a poignant moment frozen in time: A young man and his lover embosomed in a passionate kiss; her sensuously arched back and his tilted torso coalesced like two halves of a whole. The sculpture is likely inspired by Rodin’s relationship with the young sculptress Camille Claudel, whom he first met in 1882 when she was eighteen. Initially assuming the role of her tutor, Rodin was soon drawn to her candour, her steely resolve and her masterful dexterity, and as Claudel’s brother described it, “a superb forehead and magnificent eyes of a deep blue rarely encountered except in novels…[and] hair of that true chestnut shade which the English call auburn”. The relationship was a watershed for Rodin, evoking an abiding sense of eroticism.
Mai Trung Thu’s depiction of a woman in waiting in Lady at Balcony (La Fiancée) (1953) may be a nod to a real or imaginary woman from his past. Born to an affluent family in Vietnam, Mai Trung Thu left his homeland for France in 1937, averting an arranged marriage. In Lady at Balcony (La Fiancée), a wistful woman, dressed in an ao dai, gazes serenely out of a balcony with a sense of longing. Behind her, an amorphous aquamarine sky veils everything beyond. Thu’s signature is recognisable in the subject's eyes, which, although filled with sadness, are graceful and dignified, even in the face of forlornness. The brushstrokes are tender and soft, informing the observer of the subject's wistful demeanour. From the late 1940s, Mai Trung Thu would change mediums – giving up oil on canvas in favour of gouache on silk, and he would return time and again to themes connected to his Sino-Vietnamese identity. Lady at Balcony (La Fiancée) might pay homage to a woman from his past, or perhaps she may represent a longing for the homeland he left behind.
In 1952, Chinese-born Singaporean painter Cheong Soo Pieng travelled to the Indonesian island of Bali in the hope of seeking out new landscapes and people to chronicle in his works. "I was fascinated by the scenery and by the Balinese women. I discovered that Balinese women are the ideal subject matter for me, and I made a good number of paintings, modern in feeling and to my own liking, many of which I do not wish to sell," he later recalled. Bali Girl (1978) immortalises the Balinese ladies that he often observed during his travels, and a reflection of his famed Nanyang aesthetic, which notably melded influences from European art movements like Cubism and Fauvism with Southeast Asian imagery. The earth-tinted vignette in Bali Girl presents a lone, seminude woman in a visual vernacular that could exemplify Bali herself. Her slender torso and doe eyes are informed by traditional Indonesian shadow puppets, while her golden skin holds a mirror to the warm Balinese sun. Her resplendent sarong features a batik leitmotif of local hibiscus flowers, whereas her form takes on a curious likeness to the elongated figures of Amadeo Modigliani. In the background, a tree, perhaps symbolic of Pieng himself, shelters the woman and the land.
Jeune Fille au Chat Blanc
During the third phase of his artistic career, dubbed the Findlay period, French-Vietnamese painter Le Pho's muses were inspired by women or families from his native Vietnam, reimagined in Romanticist and Impressionistic styles. In Jeune fille au chat blanc, the muse, a woman with a white cat, delicately clasps a pen in one hand, while a notebook awaits its destiny. Her manner is pensive and serene; her limbs are lithe, almost boneless; and she basks in a Surrealist aura. Remarkably, Pho’s compositional device draws the observer into a luminous interior punctuated by bright colours and floral settings à la French painters Odilon Redon and Pierre Bonnard. Marrying traditional Chinese painting techniques with the post-Impressionist style he developed while living in Europe, perhaps his muse is not just a muse, but a reflection of himself: A man halfway between East and West.
Hendra Gunawan’s muse in Jackfruit Seller (1958) is neither an acquaintance nor a friend, but a community of women from his Indonesian homeland, telescoped into a curvaceous street hawker with a basket of jackfruit. The woman’s heavyset hands and feet are of particular note, evocative of the majestic scale and signature of Indonesia. Her diaphanous Batik-print Kebaya, meanwhile, bears a Stygian tone, conveying a power and strength in the ordinary. In a departure from his solo-muse canvases, Gunawan presents two other figures in Jackfruit Seller, manifesting Indonesia in multiple avatars. The women in the background don colourful Kebayas that speak of sunshine and prosperity of the island nation. A molten orange sky engulfs the women while reaching out into oblivion; an allegory perhaps, for Indonesia’s infinite possibilities.