From the Notebook: Audrey Munson

New York City, March 2004, I looked out the window of the studio in the Woolworth building, located at 233 Broadway, City Hall Park. I noticed the gold statue of a woman on top of the Municipal Building. Her pose, usually distorted when seen from the street, became visible to me for the first time: I could see her perched on a ball, barely dressed holding up a crown with her left hand and a shield with her right. I picked up a book from my desk, a New York City chronology.Under 1913, the year of the construction of the Municipal Building, I find the name of the sculpture: “Civic Fame,” symbolizing the then newly established relationship of the five boroughs of New York City. Curiosity about the name “Civic Fame” moved me a little deeper into the history of the statue and its symbolism, when I unexpectedly came across the name of the woman who posed for it:

Audrey Munson.

Who was she and what life did she live? Was she rich, was she poor? With a need to find out more about her, I dove into a narrative. I learned that Audrey Munson had been very famous in Manhattan, an early “supermodel” one could say. She posed for the sculptors of the Beaux Arts Movement, for paintings, she acted on stage and was the first nude in a movie, one that dramatized the story of her life. What motivated her? What was her relationship to the artists? Was she respected? When and why did her fame end? I find out that she posed for a statue outside the New York Public Library on 5th Avenue and 42nd street. I look at her sitting on a horse with her gaze fixed to the sky, when I walk up the stairs to the library. Inside, I ask for her name, search the databases, talk to several librarians and look at the archive for the Library building. But I can not find anything, no reference to her name, nobody knows who she was. Why is there no trace of her inside this city archive for which she served as an architectural marker? Why is she not mentioned in the accounts of New York City history?

But then later in a branch library I find a coffee table book (“American Venus”), that describes Audrey as the muse and inspiration for sculptors and painters. Reading it from cover to cover, I feel the limitations of the story told: following the myth rather then the life, it poses more questions than it answers. But nevertheless the book serves as a trace, names people and points to stories that are yet to be told. Following some of them, I realize that Audrey Munson, beside her work as a model, was fighting for the respect and rights she felt the young women in the studios deserved for their profession. She seemed to be a model that broke the silence of the representation of her body with a voice. In 1921 over the course of 20 weeks she published a series of articles in “American Weekly,” a Sunday insert in the Hearst paper “The New York American.” In these articles it becomes most evident that she was very articulated and knowledgeable, assuming an active role within the creative process. She posed for hundreds of artworks, moving from one artist studio to the other. Supposedly there was a time when there were about 30 artworks based on her poses in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. After a while, I start to recognize her face in stone around town. She suddenly seems to be everywhere even though her name is never mentioned: The Pulitzer Fountain in front of the Plaza Hotel, the entry to the Manhattan bridge, the entry to Central Park at Columbus Circle, the relief above the Frick Collection entrance, at Madison Square Garden, in a park on the Upper West Side…

Then I realize to my surprise that I just missed her. She had died only 8 years ago in Ogdensburg, upstate NY. At this moment a historian of her home town and her half-niece are trying to finance a gravestone for her still unmarked grave. Since March 2004, I have been collecting facts and fiction, talking to people who knew her or of her, trying to find her voice, her ideas among the narrative. The material on the following pages represents this beginning of my research, that will potentionally amount to a publication tracing the life and work of Audrey Munson.

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