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May 27 2012

My muse and me

How does an artist pick a muse? And what's it like to be one? Laura Barnett finds out from a choreographer, a novelist, a painter – and the people who inspire them

Choreographer Christopher Wheeldon and Lauren Cuthbertson

In 2010, when choreographer Christopher Wheeldon began working on his acclaimed version of Alice in Wonderland for the Royal Ballet, he had just one ballerina in mind for the lead role: Lauren Cuthbertson. "I'd worked with her a couple of times at the Royal Ballet School when she was about 16," Wheeldon says, "and again when she was in the corps de ballet. Even then I thought, 'This kid's really got something."' Wheeldon, who at 39 is 12 years older than Cuthbertson, adds: "She has an effortlessness, a way of making whatever she's doing on stage seem inevitable."

There was just one problem: Cuthbertson had been out of action for a year with glandular fever, and was having to sit out rehearsals. So Wheeldon began working with several other ballerinas, while still holding out for Cuthbertson. "There's a kind of wonderment in her performance that I thought was exactly right for Alice. I didn't want it to feel uncomfortable having an adult acting a child – it needed to be an adult who was still in touch with their inner child."

When Cuthbertson was well enough, they began creating the character. Wheeldon had a rough idea: "I wanted her to be unlike any other Alice we'd seen before, while staying true to the story." But he was keen for Cuthbertson to bring her own ideas. "There was trust there," says Cuthbertson. "I would get a feeling of what he wanted and bring something to the table he hadn't thought of. When you're creating a narrative ballet like Alice, you want even the smallest details – the moments, say, when Alice looks at the White Rabbit – to make sense. So if something didn't make sense to me, I would tell Chris, and we would work on it, over and over, until it did."

Their relationship, she says, was intense and instinctive. "I could tell what Chris wanted just by a look or a twitch. I didn't need coffee or Ribena. He feeds energy. We were just playing around with things and having a giggle." Wheeldon agrees. "It was, 'Let's play around and discover who this character is.'"

Wheeldon finds the word "muse" apt. "My definition," he says, "is somebody you work with, probably on a regular basis, who inspires you and informs the way you work in a surprising, unusual way." He draws a firm line, however, between this definition and the sexually predatory connotations that surround some of the great classical choreographers, such as George Balanchine (who married five of his ballerinas) and Frederick Ashton (who, though now widely believed to have been gay, was obsessed with his muse, Margot Fonteyn).

"Ashton said you have to be a little bit in love with your dancers to create beauty," Wheeldon says. "There's something in that, but for me it's a different kind of love: a connection on a childlike level. It's about saying, like kids on holiday, 'Let's go out and build sandcastles.' It's certainly not about sleeping together."

Wheeldon and Cuthbertson are working together again, on Metamorphosis: Titian 2012, a dance series inspired by Titian paintings – and hope their professional relationship will last a long time. "At the end of my career," says Wheeldon, "if I can look back and say Lauren was my muse, I'll consider myself very lucky."

Metamorphosis: Titian 2012 is at the Royal Opera House, London WC1 (020-7304 4000), from 14 July.

Writer Philip Hensher and Zaved Mahmood

Writers are often told to write what they know. But for his ninth novel, Scenes from Early Life, Philip Hensher turned the maxim on its head: the novel is a semi-fictionalised, first-person account not of his own childhood but of his Bangladeshi husband's, the human rights lawyer Zaved Mahmood.

From the moment they met a decade ago, Hensher has been fascinated by Mahmood's early life in Dhaka, growing up in the shadow of the 1971 war of independence that led to the formation of Bangladesh. "I was always saying, 'Go on, tell me more.' There were moments that were very much like my own childhood – we watched the same TV programmes, for instance – and other moments that were utterly different. There was also the fact that when I was a child, whenever I couldn't finish my food, my grandmother would say, 'Think of the starving children of Bangladesh.' If I'd known I was going to end up married to one, I'd have had a much snappier comeback."

Hensher began thinking that someone really ought to get Mahmood's recollections on paper. Deciding that he was just the man, he sat down with his husband for a series of formal interviews, at dinner times and during a six-hour train journey through Germany. Only when Hensher had finished the first draft did he show it to Mahmood, who couldn't believe how accurate it was. "I was so proud of him," Mahmood says. "The book actually took me back to my childhood, my old familiar life, in a very nice way. I only asked him to change a few things. I felt my family had come across a bit like royalty, when actually we were much more middle-class. But otherwise, it felt amazingly true. It was very nostalgic."

Neither think the term "muse" is quite right. "It's a sort of Alexander McQueen word," says Hensher, referring to the late fashion designer whose main muse was the stylist Isabella Blow. "It suggests you go out looking for someone to inspire you, but that's not how it is with Zav, although it's true that everything I've written has been, to some degree, for him. When I write something funny, I often think, 'Is this going to make Zav laugh?' But 'muse' seems a bit grandiose. Zav is more of a comfortable presence."

Mahmood is, however, intrigued by the parallels between their relationship and famous artist-muse married couples; Picasso and Jacqueline Roque, for instance. But he thinks the most useful definition of "muse" lies in the idea of emotional support. "Without that," he says, "it's very difficult for an artist to move forward. Philip supports my own work in the same way. He is very sympathetic about the way I'm leading my life and vice versa."

Hensher does see Mahmood as a source of wider inspiration, though. "It's interesting thinking about famous painters and the way they interacted with their muses," he says. "I did think of this book as a portrait of somebody I know really well, but with a range of ideas and a world view that isn't the same as mine. That's always a good thing as a writer – to put yourself in somebody else's shoes."

Scenes from Early Life is published by Fourth Estate.

Painter Chantal Joffe and Megan Watkins

Megan Watkins first caught painter Chantal Joffe's eye at the nursery their children were both attending. Joffe's daughter Esme had been there a few months, but Watkins's son Marcel was just starting. Joffe couldn't help staring. "Marcel was wearing a yellow raincoat," she says, "and Megan looked like a character from a book. I kept trying to smile at her, but she was completely caught up in the agony of separation. They both looked somehow naked in their grief."

Joffe was intrigued; when she saw Watkins again a few months later wearing a pair of red shoes, she decided to ask if she could paint her in them. Watkins, however, misunderstood. "Chantal said, 'Would you sit?' I thought she meant 'babysit', so I said yes straight away. Then Chantal explained that she wanted me to sit for a portrait. I still said yes, but I had some reservations. I didn't really know what sitting would involve, and I wasn't sure what it was about me that she found intriguing."

Joffe had never asked a stranger to sit for her before. Until then, she had mainly been using photographs of fashion models cut from magazines as the basis for her paintings. But her instinctive painterly attraction to Watkins has now produced 10 portraits. In several, Watkins is shown as pale and brightly blue-eyed, with an air of quiet stillness. Her capacity to be still, says Joffe, is one of Watkins's best qualities. "She drifts into her own world quite easily and, unlike some people, she doesn't care what you do with her image. She's not going, 'Oh, my nose isn't like that' or 'My hair's different'. It makes me feel very free."

With the models in magazines, Joffe had also enjoyed imagining each woman's life story. Instinctively, she did the same for Watkins, but turned out to be wrong. "I thought she looked quite unhappy. As we talked during sessions, I realised that wasn't the case at all. But then nobody is ever what you imagine them to be."

The concept of the "muse" carries some resonance for Joffe. "I don't know if I would use the word myself," she says, "but I do become fascinated by certain people: both Megan and the models in magazines. I'll paint them over and over, then get tired of them."

While Watkins enjoys the easy relationship they have developed ("We have these very emotional chats," she says), she thinks the dynamic might be different if she were to sit for a man. "The word 'muse' makes me think of a male-female relationship. I would have had more qualms if a man had asked to paint me. It's a very female relationship Chantal and I have: I trust her implicitly."

If the ultimate role of the muse, however, is to allow some essence of yourself to be transformed into art, then that's certainly what Watkins believes Joffe has done. "The first time I saw a finished painting," she says, "I recognised myself so strongly and powerfully, but not as I would ever have imagined. Chantal was able to put across something I hadn't recognised in myself – something evocative of the week when she painted me. The way I was feeling really came through. It was the most incredible thing."

The robber, the singer and the alcoholic

Laura de Noves

If the idealised young woman to whom Petrarch dedicated his Canzoniere did actually exist, evidence suggests she was Laura de Noves, a Frenchwoman six years the poet's junior. He first saw her in church in Avignon in 1327. The infatuation immortalised in his verses was unrequited; she married another and died in 1348 aged 38.

Victorine Meurent

For decades, the woman who posed for nine of Edouard Manet's paintings (including Déjeuner sur l'Herbe and Olympia, detail above, which caused a stir in 1863 for its depiction of , naked and brazenly enticing) was dismissed as an alcoholic and prostitute. But art historian Eunice Lipton now argues that Meurent was a talented artist in her own right.

Kiki de Montparnasse

With her trim dark eyebrows and moon-white skin, the singer, actor and artist Alice Prin (who preferred the moniker Kiki de Montparnasse) inspired the surrealists of 1920s Paris, from Man Ray to Jean Cocteau.

Saskia van Uylenburgh

Rembrandt married Van Uylenburgh, daughter of a Dutch mayor, in 1634. The couple had four children, only one of whom – their son, Titus – survived. She died soon after he was born, at the age of 29, but not before sitting for some of her husband's most radiant portraits.

George Dyer

According to popular legend, Francis Bacon met the man who would become his lover when Dyer attempted to rob his house in 1963. Their relationship was tempestuous, but resulted in some of Bacon's most searing portraits, painted during Dyer's life and after his death in 1971 from a drink and drugs overdose. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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