It’s been a mammoth undertaking! This was the introduction from Jane Alison, the co-curator of the Barbican’s new exhibition, Modern Couples, which explores how all the relationships featured in the exhibition have changed art and how society viewed these relationships. This is not art seen as it so often is through the lens of the single male genius but instead it opens up our thinking about what emerges from collaborations between couples and it makes a particular point of putting the women first in each couple (where there is a man/woman couple) making her the lead, not the muse or supporter. A refreshing viewpoint, which feels very much in tune with our times.
And yes, it is mammoth – take a look at this photo which lists all the couples featured, over 40 in all, and you’ll get an idea of the scope and scale of the exhibition.
Spread over 2 floors, laid out in easy to digest rooms, I enjoyed exploring the rooms about couples I was familiar with and being introduced to new couples and also to couples I had not known to be couples at all.
There are wonderfully detailed explanatory panels for each couple, alongside artworks by each and added items to bring their personal relationship to life: love letters, gifts, quotes, photos, even household items.
The highlights are the big names: Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera; Dora Maar and Picasso; Camille Claudel and Auguste Rodin; and Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson all of which I’m featuring but also Lee Miller and Man Ray, Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, Vanessa Bell and Roger Fry, and the list goes on….
We’ve seen so much of Frida Kahlo lately with her recent exhibition at the V&A that her work and life now feels much more familiar than his. We have works by them both, photos and inevitably quotes by Frida. The rarely seen Little Deer was a treat, alluding as ever to Frida’s pain, physical pain and the pain of her love of Diego.
Dora Maar and Picasso’s panel explains her influence on his work as a surrealist photographer rather than a passive muse, indeed through her photography, he became her muse. I loved this photo of the 2 of them on the beach which was fun to see alongside the paintings and sketches, as it brought them to life for me a couple.
Camille Claudel and Auguste Rodin have several works in the exhibition but I loved the 2 heads they made of each other.
Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson have a room in which there is a panel to Ben and his wife which emphasises the complex nature of coupledom the exhibition celebrates. We see the intertwining of Hepworth and Nicholson’s work in large cabinets and although Nicholson once claimed ‘Barbara and I are the same’ they separated and followed their own creative paths.
I also was taken by Georgia O’Keeffe whose work I love and Alfred Stieglitz by Frederico Garcia Lorca and Salvador Dali who I had not seen as a couple; by Leonora Carrington and Max Ernst.
I’ve been to Georgia O’Keeffe’s home in New Mexico so her work always speaks loudly to me and it was good to see her make an appearance here as she is so little shown in the UK. We see photos of her taken by Alfred and one stunning painting of hers, full of light and colour which shines out in the darkened upper floor of this gallery.
Lorca and Dali were close friends, sparring partners, inspirations to each other and who knows what else – no matter. They certainly influenced each other’s work and were prolific letter writers, expressing strong views about their art, life and also how much they missed each other. We see excerpts from these letters as well as photos of the pairs giving insights into how dear the friendship was, alongside their art.
Many of the couples’ stories were of extraordinary creativity and periods of great happiness but not necessarily long-lasting. Those battling convention had difficult times, including Nancy Cunard the heiress whose relationship with a black musician, Henry Crowder, led to her being disinherited and ending up in poverty but writing and doing important work for racial integration. One tragic tale was that of Leonora Carrington whose love of the German Max Ernst was thwarted by the outbreak of WW2 and his internment. She was a painter who had a brief period of ‘paradise’ as she called it but his removal from her life led to her mental breakdown and brutal treatment in a Spanish asylum. However, later on, she managed to resume her creative life in Mexico, without Max who had married Peggy Guggenheim! I was not familiar with her work or life so all this was a new and interesting discovery.
One touching and unexpected couple was Emilie Floge and Gustav Klimt. She ran her how couture house and they worked together, inspiring each other but in a platonic way, and it was rather lovely to see he had designed her business and invitation cards.
There is a great deal to explore in this Modern Couples exhibition, you would need a good couple of hours to really do it justice and so I’ve just given you a few tasters here to get you started. It’s a great idea for an exhibition and well executed and do take the time to read the panels about the couples as there is so much amazing information on each couple and the historical and social context they were living through.
To find out more about Modern Couples, opening times and ticket prices, and the Barbican Gallery here: https://www.barbican.org.uk/whats-on/2018/event/modern-couples-art-intimacy-and-the-avant-garde
Full disclosure: as is customary in the travel and tourism industry I was offered a complimentary ticket to Modern Couples for the purposes of this review. This has not influenced my views on the exhibition.