Barbican’s Modern Couples explores art, intimacy and the avant-garde

‘Some women fight and others do not,’ observes Joan Didion in her The White Album. ‘Like so many guerrillas in the wars between sexes, Georgia O’Keeffe seems to have been equipped early with an immutable sense of who she was and a fairly clear understanding that she would be required to prove it,’ the American author writes of the great American painter. Much like the handful of female artists struggling within a very male modern art world, O’Keeffe refused to be considered a ‘woman painter’. She was brave and famously outspoken, writing of her flower series which she felt were sentimentalised by the male gaze, ‘I made you take time to look at what I saw, and when you took time to really notice my flowers you hung all your associations with flowers on my flower and you write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see – and I don’t.’

Georgia O’Keeffe’s romance with the photographer and gallery owner Alfred Stieglitz, who she met in 1918 and later married, is amongst the forty art couples featured in a rich and engaging exhibition opened at the Barbican in London. Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-garde is the story of modern art in the first half of the 20th century told through relationships. The Barbican refuses to portray the woman as victim here – purposely avoiding the tired artist-as-muse narrative. Instead Modern Couples highlights how the union of two – or in some cases three as friends and lovers, straight, bi and gay – can create exciting artistic dialogues.

‘Its new take on modern art history, focusing on collaboration and mutual influence in intimate relationships, could not be timelier,’ says Jane Alison, the Barbican’s head of visual arts. ‘The show offers visitors a deeply personal and revealing insight into the transformative impact artists’ had on each other. Ultimately it is an exhibition about modern art and modern love.’

Organised by Centre Pompidou-Metz in collaboration with Barbican, it forms part of the gallery’s  The Art of Change, a year-long series exploring the relationship between art, society and politics. Modern Couples offers an insight to the life and work of an incredibly rich collection of painters, sculptors, photographers, architects, designers, writers, musicians and performers, shown alongside personal photographs, love letters, gifts and rare archival material. This is not your usual crowd-pleasing, instagramable exhibition. There is so much to take in, and so much to learn in the brilliant béton brut Barbican.

Amongst the legendary duos here are Camille Claudel and Auguste Rodin, Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Dora Maar and Pablo Picasso, the brilliant Lee Miller and Man Ray, Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West. Then there are some surprising unions, for instance Federico García Lorca and Salvador Dalí, or Emilie Flöge and Gustav Klimt. Seen as a muse in the past, Flöge was a talented fashion designer who ran her own couture house in Vienna, and happened to be Klimt’s partner. Both shared a euphoric sense of a new world of art outside the confines of academic tradition and a love of textiles and ornamentation, which clearly fed into both their practices. The photographs they took of each other are fun and full of life.

Others such as Lucia Moholy and László Moholy-Nagy are a union as much about love as shared ideology that helped alter the creative landscape. One particular highlight is Leonora Carrington’s exceptional portrait of Max Ernst, taken in 1937, a coded double portrait (pictured here). At the intersection of design and art, we get to see the Omega workshop created by Vanessa Bell, Roger Fry and Duncan Grant in 1913; there are Aino Aalto and Alvar Aalto and their Artek design company in Helsinki opened in 1935; and Eileen Gray and Jean Badovici’s modernist villa, E1027, in the south of France – featured here with original furniture pieces.

Modern Couples includes intimate relationships in all their forms – obsessional, conventional, mythic, platonic, fleeting, life-long – to reveal the way in which creative individuals came together. They often transgressed the constraints of their time, reshaping art, redefining gender stereotypes and forging news ways of living and loving. Crucially, the exhibition challenges the idea that the history of art is a single line of solitary, predominantly masculine geniuses.

This is a fascinating portrait of creative relationships, an engaging study of connections and conversations, of the brave and brilliant, daring and dynamic female and male artists, designers, writers of the early part of the last century. To quote the curators, it is a tale of ‘modern art and modern love, the seductive power of art …’. On until January and not to be missed.

Nargess Banks

All images are for press publication only and are subject to copyright. See individual descriptions for detail. #moderncouples

Design Talks | The Textile Building | 29a Chatham Place | London | E9 6FJ | UK
Design Talks is published by Spinach Design
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