The Death (But Where's the Life?) of a Muse

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Harmony Stempel in The Human Fruit Bowl

“I don’t know anything about art.” That’s what Beth says — which is ironic, because she is a life model in an art class, the only naked person in the room.

The character of Beth, played by Harmony Stempel in this one-woman, Off-Broadway show, is 22, newish to New York City and has lost her job waiting tables. Her roommate models, so she is trying it out, too. But she is uncomfortable. And bored (she keeps making lists of things she must buy at Ikea).

And she can’t stop herself from mulling over the one fact she has learned about art history: French painter Pierre Bonnard’s mistress Renée Monchaty killed herself in a bathtub after he broke up with her to marry his wife. Bonnard then went on to paint dozens of pictures of his wife – in a bathtub.

Except it turns out that maybe this fact that “everyone knows” is not true at all. The narrative is fixed on the mysteries surrounding Monchaty. When did she commit suicide, exactly? How? And why? Accounts of Bonnard’s life disagree.

But the play itself asks something more profound: If models are important to artists — if they provide both the form and the spirit that makes portraits so moving — and if their images are so important to art historians, than why are facts about the model’s lives missing from history?

When “muses” become life models for great artists, do they lose the right to have their own lives?

Human Fruit Bowl, written by Andrea Kuchlewska, directed by Jessi D. Hill and based partly on actor Stempel’s personal experience as a life model, has an intriguing structure. It asks us to imagine that we are in a life drawing class and Stempel as Beth is our model: she crawls in and out of an old-fashioned, porcelain tub. Audience members are handed lapboards, paper and pencils. And Beth poses for long stretches, until the class timer goes off and she is free to slip on a robe and eat an apple.

Except in this class, as in no other, we get to hear what the model is actually thinking. Her thoughts are as exposed as her body.

Stempel is compelling, despite the unusual restrictions placed on her. Because she is holding poses for five, 10 and 20 minutes at a time, she builds her character with her facial expressions and voice — her body is in the service of invisible artists. Yet we feel her vulnerability, her anger, her wit and her uncertainty. The character of Beth has come to New York without dreams of her own, and Stempel shows us subtly how young empty (and pretty) vessels can quickly be co-opted into being the blank page upon which someone else shades in their ambition. 

A stronger narrative would have filled out an emotional arc for Beth, not just an intellectual one. In the end, how does she feel about modeling? Is she more vulnerable or more ferocious? Does she understand, now, how the pretty women of history could have agreed to lose their identities in someone else's art?

Like Beth, you don't need to know anything about art to be drawn into this play about the art world. But if you do, it will give you plenty to think about.

The Human Fruit Bowl is playing until April 11.