10 October 2018 – 27 January 2019, Barbican Art Gallery
Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-garde brings together private and public collection work showcasing the quirky and creative output of over 40 couples from the first half of the 20th century. These include paintings, sculptures and photography by a very interdisciplinary group that The Barbican has chosen for this show.
Legendary duos include: Jean Arp and Sophie Taeuber- Arp; Camille Claudel and Auguste Rodin; Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson; Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera; Dora Maar and Pablo Picasso; Lee Miller and Man Ray; Varvara Stepanova and Alexander Rodchenko; Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West; as well as lesser known pairings such as Emilie Flöge and Gustav Klimt, Federico García Lorca and Salvador Dalí, Romaine Brooks and Natalie Clifford-Barney and Lavinia Schulz and Walter Holdt. Just to name a few.
This show was part of the Centre’s bigger project, The Art of Change; an exploration of the relationship between art, society and politics. Modern Couples hopes to highlight the ‘the way in which creative individuals came together, transgressing the constraints of their time, reshaping art, redefining gender stereotypes and forging new ways of living and loving’. Certainly an insight into how these iconic artists collaborated day to day and the effects they had on one another.
Throughout the exhibition we are given a glimpse into these very intimate relationships with additional photographs, love letters and gifts given between couples. What is more, we are constantly met with the juxtaposition of these different disciplines and the harmonious way in which they are forced together through love and, more prominently, creative interest.
“Importantly, the exhibition also challenges the idea that the history of art was a singular line of solitary, predominantly male geniuses.”
As homosexuality was illegal in 1950s America, a lot of the photography of recording such relationships was circulated only between friends, such as George Platt Lynes’s many documentations of Paul Cadmus and Jared French.
Another one that stands out is Frida Kahlo’s ‘Le Venadita (little deer)’ which she painted after a failed operation. Critiqued speculation alludes to the fragility of her relationship with Diego Rivera as her self portrayal is likened to a wounded deer, which she kept as a pet.
Winifred Nicholson’s relationship with Ben Nicholson led the two artists to experiment with ‘reduction and flattening of the picture plane as a means of discovering the intrinsic essence of things’, focusing on family life and, notably, their children.
Part of the exhibit highlights Natalie Clifford Barney’s The Temple de l’Amitie (The Temple of Friendship), an organised event in Parisian salons that was dedicated to embracing female desire and artistic innovation. Here we see Tamara de Lempicka’s Les Deux Amies (1923) amongst other paintings and photography celebrating creative lesbian and bisexual community of the time.
Literature is also key in Modern Couples , with Virginia Woolf’s Orlando: A Biography manuscript on display, as well as first editions of her husband’s work, Leonard Woolf. Poems scatter the gallery walls, including those by Brazilian sculptor Maria Martins for Marcel Duchamp and numerous other’s from Federico García Lorca’s ‘Ode To Salvador Dali’.