Issue 175: 2018 10 25: Modern Couples

25 October 2018

Modern Couples

Art, Intimacy and the Avant-Garde

The Barbican (until 27 January 2019)

Reviewed by William Morton

John Kasnetsis; Dorothea Tanning and Max Ernst with his sculpture, Capricorn 1947

The concept of this exhibition – to examine the effect upon artists’ work of their relationships (usually, of course sexual) with other artists is intriguing.  The artists selected cover a wide range and include sculptors, writers and photographers as well as painters.  Several artists appear in more than one relationship (Alma Mahler with Gustav and Kokoschka, Virginia Woolf with Leonard and Vita Sackville-West, Max Ernst with Leonora Carrington and Dorothea Tanning).  Some relationships involve more than two people, such as Vanessa Bell with Duncan Grant and Roger Fry, or are shown in a wider context such as the lesbian scene in Paris after the First World War (Gertrude Stein and Co).

The effect the various artists had on the work of their partners is obviously going to vary enormously and the sheer fact of co-habitation is going to have an impact.  Many worked side-by-side and collaborated on certain works.  One can detect the influence of Barbara Hepworth’s sculpture in some of Ben Nicholson’s work.  Clearly, Nancy Cunard (poetess daughter of the society hostess, Lady Cunard) was inspired by her relationship with Henry Crowder to take up the cause of black Americans.  However, while it is quite possible one did not look hard enough, in some cases the influence is hard to detect.  For example, Picasso painted Dora Maar numerous times but her role seems more of a model than a muse. The exhibition’s claim that he influenced her photography seem a bit far-fetched.  Those shown are more like holiday snaps of Picasso with what interested him at the time.  The relationship between Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera was intense but their styles are totally different – her painting, The Little Deer, is a sad personal one showing her face on the body of a deer pierced by arrows, his, Communicating Vessels, an abstract of inter-locking shapes.  While it is clear the Federico Garcia Lorca was a great friend of Salvador Dali, it was not obvious that he influenced his painting.

An interesting example of a common style and subject is the paintings of Gabriele Münter and her partner Wassily Kandinsky, and Marianne von Werefkin and her partner Alexej von Jawlensky.  They spent the summers together between 1909 and 1914 in the Bavarian town of Murnau am Staffelsee and each produced paintings of the town and its surroundings.  All of them are highly coloured and impressionistic (they were influenced by Matisse) and yet still reflect the individual artist.

Other striking exhibits are the severe portraits of Romaine Brooks, part of the Parisian lesbian scene and lover of the writer Natalie Clifford Barney, and the geometrical abstracts of Robert and Sonia Delaunay. Slightly weird are Marcel Duchamp’s mouldings of parts of the body of his lover Maria Martins.

Duchamp and Martins split up and, life being what it is, some of the relationships illustrated were fairly short-lived – Kandinsky went back to Russia on the outbreak of the First World War, Picasso left Dora Maar for Françoise Gilot, Ben Nicholson left Winifred for Barbara Hepworth, and Jawlensky left Werefkin for their maid.  However, some did last a lifetime, for example,that of Sophie Tauber and Jean Arp.

An interesting and stimulating exhibition but to really understand the relationships probably requires a detailed study of each one.


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