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.
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.)
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.
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.)
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).
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.