Intimacy and art embrace in Barbican’s Modern Couples

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“From the 1890s through to just after the Second World War, modern artist couples forged new ways of making art and of living and loving,” Jane Alison, head of visual arts at London’s Barbican, says. She’s putting the final touches to Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-garde – a mammoth endeavour that examines how the work of individual artists and writers was shaped by the relationships they embarked on with each other.

The show spans painting, sculpture, literature, dance, music, architecture and photography, and includes ephemera such as personal photographs and love letters alongside artworks. It’s also far from a cursory look at the history of art’s favourite romantic pairings. The likes of Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, or Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, have their part to play here, but so do lesser-known affiliations, from Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore to George Platt Lynes, Monroe Wheeler and Glenway Wescott, whose enduring ménage à trois turned their travels around Europe into an intensely fruitful creative experience.

One of the discoveries of the exhibition is the photographic trio of Paul Cadmus, Jared French and Margaret French, known collectively as PaJaMa, whose “potent images, often taken of one another, highlight the emergence of a graphic homoeroticism in the American interwar period”, says the Barbican exhibition foreword.

Dorothea Tanning and Max Ernst with his sculpture, Capricorn, 1947 © John Kasnetsis

“Ultimately it is an exhibition about modern art and modern love,” says Alison, who has conceived the exhibition as a journey through a series of rooms, each dedicated to different couples, allowing visitors to immerse themselves in their shared romantic and creative encounters. Two displays focus on larger communities of artists: one devoted to surrealism’s ‘Chance Encounter’, and the other to radical lesbian artists of the Parisian Left Bank during the 1920s and 30s.

The show also seeks to interrogate anew the much-discussed artist-muse relationship. The era in question saw women fight for “and ultimately achieve an unprecedented amount of autonomy as practising artists”, Alison continues – and even where they played muses, they often wielded artistic power. Take the photographs Alfred Stieglitz made over the course of his relationship with Georgia O’Keeffe, for example.

“It’s evident that O’Keeffe had an agency in those pictures,” Alison says. “She was very actively engaged with exploring different aspects of her identity with Stieglitz, and I think he saw those photographs of her as a kind of gift to her.”

Elsewhere, photographs by Gustav Klimt of his partner, muse and lifelong companion, Emilie Flöge, show an artist and his muse creating work together in order to financially support their independent pursuits. “Now, of course, we don’t think of Klimt as a photographer, but he took probably the first artist-as-fashion-photographer pictures. Flöge ran a couture house, and she was also a designer and a businesswoman – and he supported that by taking photographs of her.”

Self-portrait (reflected image in mirror, checked jacket), 1928 by Claude Cahun. Courtesy of the Jersey Heritage Collections

Alison is quick to point out that it isn’t all rosy. “There are very different kinds of relationships in the exhibition – some of them lifelong, devoted, fulfilled, empowered and respectful. And others were very troubled, or tragic in some cases. At the time, it was difficult and courageous to lead these kinds of lives – they went against the norms and conventions of society.”

The work made by Dora Maar, the French surrealist photographer, painter and poet during her decade-long relationship with Pablo Picasso, is a case in point. “Maar was an independent, intelligent, creative artist in her own right,” she says. Their story ended badly – but the opportunity to see Maar’s work displayed on its own terms in the exhibition is a satisfying one nonetheless.

The show’s aim ultimately is “to look at the couple as a catalyst for creative dialogue”, says Alison. What Modern Couples seems to suggest is that if love was the catalyst, it was often the photographer’s darkroom – that liminal, womb-like space – that incubated and protected creative fulfilment in its early form.

Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-garde is on show at Barbican Art Gallery from 10 October 2018 – 27 January 2019 This article is taken from the October issue of BJP

Rrose Selavy, 1921 by Man Ray. Courtesy Galerie 1900-2000, Paris
Hans Arp with Nabel-Monokel, 1922, Anonymous, courtesy Galerie Berinson, Berlin
Tina Reciting, 1924 by Edward Weston. Courtesy Centre of Creative Photography, Arizona
Aleksander Rodchenko and Varvara Stepanova descending from the airplane, for the film The General Line by Sergei Eisenstein, 1926. Photographer unknown. Courtesy Rodchenko and Stepanova Archives, Moscow
Dorothea Tanning and Max Ernst with his sculpture, Capricorn, 1947 © John Kasnetsis
Der Vater, 1920 by Hannah Höch. Courtesy Galerie Berinson, Berlin
Cadavre Exquis, 1930 by André Breton, Nusch Eluard, Valentine Hugo, and Paul Eluard. Courtesy The Mayor Gallery, London