My kingdom for a muse?
What does it mean to be inspired? Where does inspiration come from? How does one obtain it? And how does one keep it?
Although there are no definitive answers to these questions, we all instinctively feel that there is something desirable about that elusive mood that drives a person to create something. It is not experienced by everyone, but only by a few select individuals – artists, to be precise. Why do we hold those who have the ability to create things in such special esteem?
Over time, the perception of inspiration has undergone various shifts, but one thing remains constant: it has always been seen as a kind of direct line to the divine. From the very earliest cultures to the Abrahamic religions, this apparently unconscious dimension to the creative flux has given it a certain air of mystery and enlightenment. As such, the person on the receiving end has to remain receptive, open to possession, allowing his spirit to be penetrated by the daemon or deity. While the Greeks saw this state as ecstasy, the Romans understood inspiration as something that precedes the creative act. The Jews also saw it as proof of God’s interest in his creatures, breathing remarkable ideas into their souls. Inspired in turn by this concept, Christians saw inspiration as a gift from God, while the pagan peoples of the north considered it to be the magical touch of divine beings.
For the purposes of the story that we want to tell here, we will take the Greek model as our starting point, as the sweet-voiced muses first appear in a scene from Hesiod. When Hesiod was a young shepherd, a few of those figures urged him to create; their exact number might be uncertain, but their power to inspire men to music, dance and poetry is in no doubt. According to the tradition, they offered him a crown of laurel leaves and inspired him to swap tending flocks for poetry. Sometime later there was a new dawn, with Aurora spreading her rosy fingers across the world, as the Greeks tried to impose some order on inspiration, tying it to the arts, sciences and humanities. Nine muses emerged to suffuse us with brilliance. Due to the range of disciplines to which they were dedicated, they were allocated specific vocations. Thus we have Calliope, committed to inspiring epic poetry; Clio illuminating the designs of History; Euterpe indicating the path towards music and lyric poetry; Erato firing up mortals with erotic poetry; Melpomene warning writers of tragedies; Polyhymnia overseeing hymns and geometry; Terpsichore urging people to perform the harmonious movements of dance; Thalia invoking the ability to laugh and inspiring comedy; and Urania encouraging men to discover the secrets of the celestial spheres, controlling astronomy and, in those bygone times, astrology.
It is significant that the Muses were the daughters of Mnemosyne, memory – in her turn the daughter of Cronos, time – as it was often said that the inspired obtained inspiration in the same way that Hercules received his labours. This echoes the famous maxim, repeated down the centuries to those distracted from their work, that inspiration is 90% perspiration. In other words, inspiration is not, as a rule, the result of chance or random epiphanies, but rather incessant work, time, the ability to draw connections from one’s knowledge (and thus call upon the memory) and the determination to venture down unexplored paths.
This was also the case in the Renaissance. At that time, the Muses were deemed responsible for states of enthusiasm, or poetic fury, a condition that gave the “chosen ones” access to the sacred mysteries. Yet the artists, who were already beginning to lay claim to a status above that of mere artisans, knew that the most important prerequisites were continual work, study and practice. The Italian painter and architect of the Renaissance Giorgio Vasari noted that this was true of his most illustrious contemporaries.
Romanticism was responsible for the enigmatic image of the artist as an intimate companion (but also a dependent) of the Muses. However, this shift in the general perception of artists also succeeded in obscuring their working processes, thus elevating the creative artistic act to the level of myth and interpreting it as an exclusive and direct connection with the Almighty.
As part of this process, the arts (visual, musical, literary) became dominant and eclipsed other disciplines, which were seen as the result of applied, methodical work rather than creativity, and thus languishing in the realm of the prosaic and profane, while artistic endeavours enjoyed great esteem as the preserve of the sacred. When seen in the cold light of day, this idea reveals itself to be counterproductive and does not do justice to the genesis of artistic work. Even today, despite the fact that ancient works might be deemed to be more accomplished than their contemporary counterparts (which are seen by many as immediate and thus devoid of any real effort, technical skill or craftsmanship), they are, paradoxically, considered to be of lesser value. Public perception and ideas about value are now awash with ambiguity in relation to contemporary works. While people view artists in a Romantic, soft-focus light, considering them inspired souls and dilettantes (with the merest nod to their actual graft), they mistrust those who present their work as the fruit of hard toil. It is as though such an admission would actually indicate a lack of inspiration.
Admittedly, the mind needs to shut out all other preoccupations in order to commit fully to its task, and it would not be going too far to claim that doing so allows it to achieve its most ground-breaking and brilliant results; it is no mere coincidence that many good ideas only emerge when we stop trying to push our way down dead ends and decide to stroll aimlessly through the forest instead. However, the forest itself does not guarantee inspiration. Rather, inspiration comes as the hard-won fruit of many encounters with the vast menagerie of different beings that inhabit that forest, and whom we only succeed in seeing once we have read many books, seen many pictures and heard many compositions.
These were the basic ideas that provided the inspiration for this exhibition. We invited nine contemporary visual artists to take part – the same as the number of Muses. We wanted to find out what inspires them and how they come up with their ideas, their work. What drives them to create? Beyond the initial impulse behind each artist’s work or the field in which they feel most comfortable, all of them share a certain sense of stubborn perseverance. Their dedication to the muse is nothing less than devotion to an internal truth, a search for that which both disquiets and placates us in our relationship with the world. Having looked at the ideas contained in their work, we proposed a muse for each artist, and asked them to give voice to that figure as a metaphor for their inspiration, working processes, and any anxieties that they might have, through the medium of their works and words.
We asked Daniela Krtsch to ponder Calliope, and she came back to us with a body inspired by eloquence, in dialogue with the classical face of the muse. We gave Hugo Barata the challenge of handling Clio, and he has presented us with a view of history as a complex, interwoven fabric of voices and silence. Ana Vidigal took on Erato, and reveals the muse in a large structure made of books stacked on top of one another, forming a vast web of relationships, readings and intimate encounters with the word that becomes incarnate in the book. Simão Costa makes Euterpe actually sing in a visual and audio installation that vibrates, much to our surprise, in silence, as it is activated by our movements, while it also features a body of lines that evoke drawing. Rogério Ribeiro recreates some of the many tragedies that beset human nature in his evocation of Melpomene. Ana Rito dances with Terpsichore, showing movement and its reverse – hesitations. Pires Vieira presents the harmony of Polyhymnia as a confrontation between different times through a complex and archaeological piece, depicting the genetic heritage that makes up the dialogue between past and present. Pedro Proença teases us with Thalia, the unloved muse, who is often seen as frivolous, but is perhaps the bravest of them all as she laughs in the face of any conflict, a raw reminder of the insignificance of mankind in the immensity of the cosmos. And Marta Wengorovius reveals the heavens above us, recalling Urania and our place within the Universe, and the way in which it benevolently carries us all.
The works that unfold before us in the form of paintings, drawings, videos and installations are the result of years of studying, experimentation, visits to museums, books read, conversations with friends, research into movement, playing with words and observation of the subtlest hand movements, but never the worship of mere chimeras. All of the pieces by all of the artists are replete with references, but awhirl with doubts and hesitations, too. What is it leads them to choose a particular path? That question may never be answered. And as such it will remain a grey area, forever mysterious and enchanting, so that even today, when binary reigns supreme, we may set off into the forest, into books, concerts, theatres, cinemas and exhibitions, in search of someone who might take us by the hand and help us to lose ourselves among the leaves, only to find ourselves there.
We would like to thank all of the artists who accepted our challenge and willingly revisited the muses. They have provided us with perfect metaphors, showing how the fleeting essence of those ancient beings and their elusive spirit can only be captured through the dedication and efforts of those who set out to create something.