Modern Couples Exhibition

I mistakenly thought the exhibition at the Barbican Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-Garde was on until the end of February, so I still had plenty of time to visit it. I’d been meaning to go since it opened in October, but something or other always seemed to intervene. So when I realised on Thursday that it was closing this weekend, I scrambled desperately to get tickets. Me and a few hundred other people, which meant that it was very crowded and quite a challenge to read the many texts telling you about the different couples of the exhibition.

Klimt: Death and Life, from the Klimt Foundation, Vienna.

The focus was firmly on the first half of the 20th century and the so-called avant-garde, including Surrealism, but the definition of art was very broad, including textiles, architecture, interior design, literature etc. Some of the couples I knew pretty well already: Pablo Picasso and Dora Maar, Rodin and Camille Claudel, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. Others, however, were more in the ‘heard about them vaguely’ category rather than knowing anything about their art, such as Jean Arp and Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Sonia and Robert Delaunay, Lee Miller and Man Ray. And then there were those who were completely new to me: Hannah Höch and Raoul Hausmann, Lili Elbe and Gerda Wegener, Unica Zürn and Hans Bellmer, Dorothea Tanning and Max Ernst. (I knew about Max Ernst and Leonora Carrington, but not about this later relationship.)

I fell in love with this self-portrait by Romaine Brookes (another artist new to me): she looks so ready to embark upon adventure.

There were many positives about this exhibition: all kind of relationships were taken into account, from short-term love affairs to long marriages and more or less platonic relationships. Heterosexual couples, gay couples, a trans marriage, threesomes, fluid gender, interracial relationships – everything was present there. Many of the exhibits displayed that sense of exhilaration when true minds meet each other, when mutual support and collaboration inspires artists to new heights. Salvador Dali encouraged Federico Garcia Lorca’s drawings, Aino and Alvar Aalto completed each other by thinking about a house from both the inside and the outside, Emilie Flöge the fashion designer was not only Gustav Klimt’s muse but also translated his artistic visions into magnificent and revolutionary dresses.

Sonia Delaunay creation.

Overall, however, reading the notes about the different relationships saddened me somewhat. It appears that all too frequently the women were appreciated mainly for their bodies and looks, were often much younger than the ‘artistic men’ to whom they became muses. Many of the letters on display show a male obsession with the body, a female obsession with the mind and the emotions. Take this sad little P.S. at the bottom of one of Camille Claudel’s letter to Rodin: ‘Surtout ne me trompez plus.’ (Please stop cheating on me.)

Mask of Camille by Rodin, portrait of Rodin by Claudel. Copyright: Musee Rodin, Paris.

Needless to say, this ‘muse’ period was often transient, and the men moved easily on to the next shiny thing, leaving quite a lot of despair, desolation, broken dreams, mental health issues, abandoned children etc. in their wake. There are only two women who acted like men in this respect: Alma Mahler (the original groupie, her list of lovers and husbands reads like a Who’s Who of the Germanic arts at the turn of the 20th century- Gustav Mahler, Walter Gropius, Oskar Kokoschka, Franz Werfel) and Gala (married to Paul Eluard, in a threesome with him and Max Ernst, eloped with Salvador Dali and then short affairs to encourage many, many younger artists).

Sophie Taeuber-Arp and Jean Arp in front of some of her puppet creations.

Even the happy marriages only appear to have stayed happy because the wife died prematurely (as is the case with Aino Aalto and Sophie Taeuber-Arp), and so was presumably somewhat idealised by the surviving partner. Not for too long, however. Within three years, the men settled down with a new life partner. Jane Austen certainly observed and expressed this perfectly in Persuasion: ‘All the privilege I claim for my own sex (it is not a very enviable one, you need not covet it) is that of loving longest, when existence or when hope is gone.’

I am very glad I caught this exhibition, where I could have spent hours, but the downside of visiting on the last day was that they had run out of exhibition catalogues. And this is one catalogue that I really would like to keep.

15 thoughts on “Modern Couples Exhibition”

  1. I have a postcard of this Klimt in my book nook at home.
    I would have loved this exhibition.
    Camille Claudel was also wronged by her artistic brother. He mistreated her so badly, this great Catholic believer.

    1. Have you seen the film about Camille, with Isabelle Adjani playing her part? I was slightly obsessed by it as a teenager. Yes, Paul Claudel was such a hypocrite, wasn’t he?

    1. Yes, sometimes they rather stretched the definition of art (Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West?) but it fitted in well with the others, so I didn’t mind.

  2. I’ve seen the exhibition and thought it was both fascinating and extensive. The power of relationships to influence artistic expression cannot be underestimated and this show provides ample evidence. I agree that many of the male artists were mysogonist but we must consider that was a product of the time . Picasso produced his best work when he was either madly in love or in dispute with one of his lovers. I think passion produces good art. I wonder whether a consequence of #metoo may be to sanitise art to make it banal.

    1. Yes, in many ways they were far more adventurous and experimental in their relationships in those days than they were/are in my generation, which can lead to higher highs and perhaps lower lows too. I don’t want sanitised art, but I really do want a plurality of voices, and not just the famous male artist’s side of the story.

  3. Oh, I hate it when that happens with an exhibition – I have the same thing with one of my Russian ones and it became a bit of a battle.

    As for what you say about the women as muses thing, I so empathise. And you’re right about the female obsessions with mind and emotions – I have had some many loves over the years rooted in the intellect.

    And I love the Romaine Brookes picture – I’d never heard of her either, but I obviously need to investigate.

    1. I do love these new discoveries that you can then become quietly obsessed about, don’t you? She was Ida Rubinstein’s lover, I believe, and I had heard of her.

  4. This looks wonderful. I must sign up to the Barbican’s mailing list. I tend to rely on my Art Fund Card to point me at exhibitions but the Barbican’s not on their radar, so it seems.

    1. It’s actually not that difficult to get to the Barbican from my workplace, so I should consider going there more often too. They also had a fantastic science fiction exhibition there a year ago.

  5. This must have been a fascinating exhibit, Marina Sofia. But, yes, a very sad one in its way, too, when you learn about the relationships. The artwork, though, is beautiful, and I would have loved to see that!

    1. It must have taken an age to curate this exhibition, from so many different countries and places, so there were only a few exhibits per couple, but still, very much worth it!

  6. I like that Romaine Brookes very much. I had never heard of her. Many “great” male artists and writers mistreated women — spouses, mistresses, muses, etc. No excuse for it these days. It does turn me off when I learn of misogynistic treatment of women. With the Me Too movement and rise in consciousness about misogyny, there is no reason why men can’t change their views and behavior and treat women as equals and still make art. Absolutely can and should be done.
    In many movies now, there are changes being made with strong women characters. Need more women directors, cinematographers, lighting crews, etc. All possible.

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