Brand building through storytelling

Death of a muse

Maillol RiverI had never heard of Dina Vierny when I read that she had died in Paris, age 89. Yet  I had often seen the splendour of her naked body, sculpted by Aristide Maillol,  whose creative powers she awakened when he was 73 and she the 15-year-old schoolgirl he knew on sight to be his model of a lifetime. She would remember in old age, “He said that he had been drawing my features for 20 years before my birth.”

Her obituary in the New York Times could be the sketch of a novel. Science, not art, had been Dina’s passion. Bold for her years and accustomed to nude adventures with her friends, she volunteered to take off her clothes—after two years—because Maillol was too timid to ask. In a photo she leans against the old man’s shoulder with the confident, protective expression of a woman who has found her vocation. She looks at you, declaring herself, while Maillol contemplates some vision off camera, visible only to himself.

Dina modeled for Maillol until he died, with occasional forays to pose for the likes of Matisse. She spent the rest of her days collecting art and burnishing Maillol’s reputation, eventually founding a museum in his honour, which doubled as her home.

By modern standards she sold herself short, pouring all her gifts into a man’s career. Today’s young women quite rightly aspire to lead their own companies, save endangered species or promote world peace, not to take off their clothes and inspire a famous artist. Yet Dina clearly had no regrets about the path she chose. Not long before her death, still beautiful and vibrant, she told an NPR reporter, “You must search for happiness in your life. Don’t get discouraged. Look ahead with hope.”

I envy the reporter who snagged the last interview with Dina Vierny. I wish I could have seen her apartment at the top of a spiral staircase, and heard her stories of a life that brimmed with quiet, unheralded courage. During World War II, Dina worked for the Resistance, helping Jews escape from occupied France. Jewish herself, she was risking her life. Twice she was arrested, once by police who conveniently overlooked the piles of forged passports in her room.

When Maillol found out about his model’s secret adventures, he came to her aid by hiring a lawyer and finding new routes for the refugees. Like him, she had a creation, and it was freedom. So who’s to say that the talents of one were subordinated to the other?

Online I ponder sculptures of Dina, the ones I’ve seen (like “The River,” shown here, at MOMA in New York) and the many I haven’t. In three visits to Paris, I’ve somehow always missed the Maillol Museum. Perhaps another attraction outstarred it in my guidebook. Now my head is full of this woman. I can’t help but wonder how she’d fare if she were young today, with those fleshy curves. Would she be starting her fifty-seventh diet? Contemplating liposuction?

Dina and Maillol were never lovers; no wonder her sculpted image looks so powerfully self-contained. She was shorter than I am, 5 feet 2 inches, but I never would have guessed, so devotedly did Maillol magnify her presence.

P.S. For a wonderfully original, woman’s-eye view of the bond between artist and muse, see Francine Prose‘s The Lives of the Muses: Nine Women and the Artists They Inspired. The duos profiled here range from Alice Liddell and Lewis Carroll to John Lennon and Yoko Ono. I wonder what Francine Prose would make of Dina Vierny and Aristide Maillol.


Posted by Rona

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