Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant Garde

The Barbican’s latest exhibition is an ambitious attempt to explore relationships within art from the late 19th to 20th century. The viewer is invited to consider the relationships behind the art and how they affected and informed the work produced by one or both parties. It is informative and fascinating, exploring a wide spectrum of artists in painting, sculpture, photography, design and literature: but with so broad a scope, Modern Couples feels at times both overly exhaustive and exhausting.

Right from the start, it becomes painfully aware that history has not been kind to many of the women in the relationships – rarely given enough credit for creating their own art and informing and inspiring their partners’ work. We are also encouraged to appreciate the importance of the “muse” in creating art – particularly in the context of romantic relationships, often providing the energy and the inspiration for the finished art work. Should Dora Maar, Picasso’s mistress, have gotten more credit for the striking nature of Picasso’s portraits of her? Perhaps.

One of the exhibition’s limitations is that it’s quite general. I found myself sufficiently interested in and satisfied by the artist couples focused on artwork and photography. I felt like we didn’t need to see in the same exhibition the artists who focused on architecture or, whilst also fascinating, Virginia Woolf’s various relationships and how they impacted her writing. As a consequence, the exhibition became a little tiresome, and was not as concise and focused as it could have been.

The sections I found the most interesting were the ones where both parties in the relationship were artists separately and you could see each other’s effect on their work. For example, the first collection of art the viewer sees are Auguste Rodin’s sculptures alongside his mistress’, Camille Claudel. Both works are strikingly primal and intimate, and seeing them alongside each other coupled is truly fascinating.

Another element of the exhibition I found interesting was the number of artists engaging in unconventional sexual practices at the time, bringing a new light to the exhibition’s title “Modern Couples”. Several artists in the exhibition were in polyamorous or polygamous relationships with each other many years ago, each using each other for inspiration. I tend to think of this as a fairly recent phenomenon but  George Platt Lynes, Monro Wheeler and Glenway Wescott were in a relationship and taking inspiration from each other in their art for 16 years, from 1927 to 1943.

Many of these lovers’ relationships ended tragically, sending one of them into a mental breakdown from which they never recovered. It was nice as a viewer to find one that went the distance, or left the other on good terms.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the exhibition. Despite being a little overly exhaustive, it was fascinating to see the story of the artists’ relationships alongside their respective art works. As I left, it struck me what an impact obsessive love makes when it comes to producing art. The artist feels their emotions so strongly and you can sense that in the work, there’s an electricity to it, a mad love: as André Breton, featured in the exhibition, describes “My wish is that you may be loved to the point of madness.”


Words by Ieuan Coombs

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