Modern Couples at the Barbican Art Gallery review ****

Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-Garde

Barbican Art Gallery, 15th November 2018

Here’s another smart bit of curating from the team at the Barbican, in collaboration with the Centre Pompidou-Metz here led by Jane Alison. Track the history of modernism in art – not just painting, but sculpture, photography, design, print, literature and architecture, with a nod to the commercial where appropriate – through the couples which created it. 

The net has been cast wide, both in terms of the number of artists involved, 46 partnerships in total, the themes that are explored, including love, sex, passion, politics, collaboration, abstraction, communication, and the nature of the relationships, straight, gay, bi, polyamorous, homoerotic, controlling, liberating, disturbing, equal, unequal, conventional, unconventional. 

With a few exceptions there isn’t a great deal of material here to map each couple but the quantity, and the clear and direct tone, display and messaging, makes up for that. The private connections are fascinating in themselves but also shed a lot of light on how art and artists have changed society since the turn of the C20.

There are a fair few relationships that you might expect to appear, the Bloomsbury Group permutations, Frieda Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Georgia O’Keefe and Alfred Stieglitz, Ben Nicholson and Winifred Nicholson and then Barbara Hepworth, Alma Mahler and Gustav and Oskar Kokoschka (who really couldn’t let go), Jean Arp and Sophie Tauber, Lucia Moholy and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, the Delauneys. And then there are a few which I didn’t anticipate. The Aaltos, Gustav Klimt and designer and businesswoman Emilie Floge, Nancy Cunard and Henry Crowder. 

It is hard not to be drawn into the stories of those women artists whose contributions, the exhibition argues, may not have been justly recognised in the shadow of their more “famous” partners, Camille Claudel and Rodin, Maria Martins and Duchamp and, arguably, Dorothea Tanning and Leonora Carrington with Max Ernst. The fate of Dora Maar, Picasso’s early muse, and Unica Zurn, the “inspiration” for Hans Bellmer, will likely disturb. A lot of these fellas don’t come across well here. 

Most interesting for me. The intense friendship between Lorca and Dali. The portraits of Romaine Brooks, (her lifelong partner, and oft-subject was the writer Natalie Barney), entirely new too me, Lee Miller, during her years with Man Ray and Roland Penrose, she is a cast-iron genius though here, as elsewhere, the submission is unsettling, and, best of all the extraordinary creative partnership of constructivists Varvara Stepanova and Alexander Rodchenko. Now they were the future, and looking at their work, they still are. And as far as I can see they were genuinely equal with no hint of the f*cked up sadism of the surrealist fringe. There they are above in the 1920’s looking pretty cool. 

Well worth a look. It may end up being more biography than art and it is probably fair to say, like most of the Barbican’s exhibitions, it is designed for the slighter, and maybe outre, attention span, but, let’s be honest that is sometimes what the head, and feet, requires. Don’t expect to be bowled over by amazing art, but do expect to learn something. Tie it in with something else – it’s not like there isn’t plenty going on at the Barbican. 

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