‘I could not possibly “make art” because I did not know how – I was terribly afraid of it. ‘ Else Hildegard Plötz has put her paint and her brushes aside and tells ourselves, sitting on a chair, her legs crossed and her hands raised in a helpless gesture. We are only at the beginning of her life story, one of eight life stories that illustrator Loes Faber recorded in I’m my muse, but consider this moment, this dead end, with a canvas in front of Else on the easel with question marks on. It’s one of many moments in graphic novel where art history comes to life magnificently. Another moment is when the infant Jesus in a painting by Artemisia Gentileschi from 1609 unexpectedly addresses us (‘The cherries in my hand show you that I’m not just a baby!’) Or Artemisia herself sweating carrots for a blank canvas by candlelight: “I swear to you I will not rest for a moment.”
Faber’s artists regularly comment on their own existence, as in a conversation with the camera in one reality show, are honest about their struggles and dilemmas on the road to successful artistic work, where most of the obstacles arise from being born as women. In the preface, Faber writes how ten years ago she began to dive into the history of ‘the female self-portrait’ and discovered how the entire liberation of women can be read from these portraits: ‘As time went on, it seemed as if the palettes got bigger, the look more brave, the themes more personal. For many of these women, the choice to become an artist was a brave act in itself, sometimes a defiance. ‘
That art history neglected their achievements for a long time is the damage (and disgrace) that museums, curators, writers and researchers are now trying to repair with special books, prizes, funds, lecture series, podcasts and exhibitions, often with titles that still carry the insult †The great women’s art book_Masters women, Naked on a rug)._ Also I’m my muse is an attempt to rewrite the art history, or at least, as Faber himself puts it, to tell the stories of a few women who were initially skipped over by art history. Potentially, this is a venture that makes you go into spasm, going through the art history with circular motions like along a minefield, but it does not. Where I personally prefer to avoid the term ‘female artist’ – because a construction to keep women small, smaller, ‘different’ even in the present, a subgroup, derived from a major species, etc. – she does not shy away from it, and it is somewhere also refreshing in this historical context (of the eight artists she chose, Carolee Schneemann was the last to die in 2019) – just call the animal by her name. With a relaxed atmosphere that allows for both emotion and humor, she portrays the artist’s life, from birth to death. Faber chose women from different times and continents who made art in different styles and disciplines, making it a group that is as random as it is fascinating. Eight is also a well-chosen number, too few for large pretensions, enough to point out.
For what Faber’s women have in common is that they sought all their lives, and during that search they resolved boundaries, between woman and man, between East and West, between high and low art. Some became mothers, others had abortions, but their femininity was still one thing: the place that art occupied in their lives was never taken for granted, it always had to be fought for and guarded. Like any artist, they had to adhere to tradition, and the fact that they had the energy to be progressive, not to adhere to current standards, but to encourage innovation, is admirable. Charley Toorop had to endure some criticism (at an exhibition in Stedelijk in 1927: ‘If we take as our starting point the view that a woman’s art must necessarily be distinguished by qualities such as softness, grace, tenderness, playful imagination [:] Charley Toorop does not own them ‘), but that did not stop her from founding, for example, a rival artists’ association to take a stand against De Brug’s delicate souls and calm.
As Charley Toorop tumbles down the stairs, the lines wave around her
Toorop is the only Dutch artist in I’m my muse† He is typically the kind of artist most people would know for a self-portrait, but no more, and the way Faber visually shapes his life is an enrichment, a combination of artist, life and work that lasts. She uses a lot of text for the stories, remarkably much for one graphic novel, but part of that text behaves like a drawing, takes shape and bends with perspective and still remains readable (it undoubtedly contributes to the fact that the book is black and white). In a scene from Toorop’s Parisian years, text is cast in an avenue at night, with the paintings Toorop made there by prostitutes in the middle of the street. Faber draws with great freedom, the artists and their works of art, which she also combines, for example if she wants to get Charley Toorop and father Jan together in the landscape of Domburg. In the drawing, where Charley Toorop falls down the stairs with a bang, the beginning of the end of her career, the lines wave around her, as in her father ‘salad oil style’.
The common thread is the self-portraits, which in turn become portraits in the hands of Faber. The self-portrait is always both a mirror and a challenge for a role-playing game: if Artemisia is one Self-portrait as a lye player is not because she actually played lye, but because she would like to see herself do it. But Faber makes a group of friends dance around the woman with lye in her drawing. That’s where the fun and excitement lies I’m my muse: that the artists on the one hand gain control over their own history, but out of the hands of a storyteller / artist who acquires their own works of art. The narrative is light-hearted (‘As her omptive escapade results in her gonorrhea, 20-year-old Else decides it’s been nice for a while’) and lyrical, a bit lavish with exclamation marks, but the images are carefully selected.
The story of Else Hildegard Plötz, who at first did not know it very well as an artist, but in time would become both baroness and homeless, is out of control and jumps out of the sides. No artist as avant-garde as she, avant avant-garde when she walks the streets with her headlight on, because if cars do, why not as an artist too. She would die as Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, living on.
It brings out the best in the illustrator. Other stories are more modest, such as the story of Amrita Sher-Gil, a well-known name in India but one of many recent ‘rediscovery’ in the West. The Hungarian-Indian artist, who died at the age of 28, as well as the African-American Elizabeth Catlett, who turned 96, fought for the liberation of their culture and society in addition to the struggle to make art as a woman.
The subtitle on I’m my muse reads: Quirky women who changed art history† Strictly speaking, most of them do not, at least not in their own time. They created change, but ‘art history’ is hard stuff where until recently no movement seemed possible. A new art history may well call for new forms, and this book is one of them, written in pen and ink.
At least there are pages to hang on the wall, like the one with a party for Frida Kahlo at the end of her life, with the artist in bed surrounded by her friends and her artwork on the wall. The reason was Kahlo’s first solo exhibition in Mexico, and only then her ‘modest exhibition link’, as she herself called it. Death with its hollow eyes is already sticking its head out from under the bed.