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'Modern Couples: art, intimacy and the avant-garde' Review – Barbican Art Gallery

10 October 2018 - 27 January 2019

Standard: £16

Concessions: £12


"Modern Couples: art, intimacy and the avant-garde" is meant to show how the works of world-famous creative geniuses was shaped by their romantic relationships. Held at the Barbican Art Gallery, this is the first such exhibition of its scale, featuring over 40 modern artists of the early 20th century working across the fields of painting, literature, sculpting, architecture, fashion and music. The architecture of the exhibition enhances the sense of intimacy, with artwork by creative couples placed together within small rooms to draw you into their world and show you their artistic dialogue. Interspersed throughout the exhibition, you’ll also find archival evidence such as personal letters, highlighting the emotionally-charged and all-consuming nature of many of these passionate encounters, for example between French sculptor Auguste Rodin and his young muse Camille Claudel.

"I express in a loud voice what all artists think. Desire! Desire! What a formidable stimulant."— Auguste Rodin

It is, of course, quite a sexy exhibition. Naturally, themes of desire and eroticism are foregrounded in the artwork displayed, a natural consequence of the dizzying influence these lovers had on each other. On top of that, the creative process itself offers a sense of release for these artists, and their art further assumes an erotic nature. Among the erotic art displayed are the nude photographs of Lee Miller by her lover Man Ray, who “used the intimacy of the darkroom” to explore the “poetic and transgressive potential of erotic imagery.” Such art was often used to liberate the artist and his or her audience from the social mores of the day and to centre the artists’ desires in a bid to express themselves more honestly.

These passionate relationships produced a great deal of collaboration and creative unity, challenging our idea of creative genius as a solitary force brewed in isolation.

Jane Alison, Head of Visual Arts at the Barbican Centre, points out that "in the process of giving birth to art together, an intensely personal and vulnerable process, these lovers gave birth to each other." In highlighting this intensely reciprocal process, the exhibition places a spotlight on its women: male artists are portrayed as muses that shape the work of female artists, instead of simply the other way around, and women are shown to be behind some of the male’s’ “genius.” For example, I discovered that Dora Maar, Pablo Picasso’s lover and muse, was an accomplished photographer in her own right, known for her quirky photo montages. She was close to the Surrealists, and her love for the absurd influenced Pablo Picasso’s later paintings tremendously. In each room, for each (heterosexual) couple, the woman’s name is put first – a simple but powerful gesture that foregrounds women’s agency, challenges the art world’s traditional tendency to objectify women, and critiques the frequency with which these women artists’ own contributions were overshadowed by their male counterparts.

One of the strongest points of the exhibition is how the notion of couple is interpreted as an elastic concept, one which Jane Alison stresses that couples both embraced and challenged in different ways. This underscores the dynamic ways artists influenced each other as well as the radical nature of their lives and work. The exhibition contests what is a conventional “couple” – two heterosexual, happily-married individuals – and highlights a diversity of experiences, from same-sex relationships to a variety of tumultuous affairs that arose from bohemian living and sexual liberation. The radical nature of these relationships may have contributed to the culture-bending and moving artwork of some of these artists: Virginia Woolf’s Orlando was inspired by her relationship with the flamboyantly-fluid and androgynous Vita Sackville-West, and Gerda Wegener’s paintings of beautiful aristocratic women were often modelled on her trans partner Lili Elbe (a story that inspired the 2015 film The Danish Girl).

This exhibition will interest people who enjoy modern art and art history – those who want to complicate their understanding of what contributes to good art and learn more about the lives of these creative geniuses. But most of all, this is exhibition is for those who love love in all its vibrancy and diversity.

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