French sculptor Auguste Rodin and his pupil-cum lover Camille Claudel open the show. Although little-known today, Claudel worked side by side with Rodin for ten years; she assisted the sculptor on public commissions and inspired some of his most erotic work, including his first composite sculpture, Je suis Belle, 1882.
What is so striking about their display is the synchronicity in their work. We see similarities in their clay studies of entwined bodies and poignant portraits of each other. We see Claudel's erotic terracotta sketches for Sakountala, her own version of an intimate sculptural embrace, and Rodin's plaster mask of his lover's head. We see the overlap in love and art in crystal clarity. But driven to distraction by their final break up in 1905, Claudel was incarcerated and passed away 30 years later in solitary exile. She slid from the pages of art history; oft forgot until now.
Frida Kahlo, Le Venadita (little deer), 1946. Private Collection. Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago
And, of course, there’s Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. Now a celebrated artist in her own right, Kahlo long lurked in the shadows of her more famous husband. But Rivera regarded Kahlo as his intellectual equal. On an ideological level at least, they worked hand in hand. Together they were engaged in the political rebirth of their country, following the horrors of the Mexican Revolution. Again, it's a wavering and little convincing narrative when their 'couple space' is centred around Kahlo’s rarely seen self-portrait as a wounded deer. Painted after Kahlo emerged from a failed back operation, Wounded Deer alludes to the artist’s fragility and vulnerability, as well as to her fractured relationship with Rivera.
But this exhibition is not just an exposé of forgotten artist women. Laid bare are the creative relationships between Dali and Lorca, Lili Elbe and Gerda Wegener, and Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West. Indeed, one of the most intriguing couples in the exhibition is Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore. Partners in love and art for more than 40 years, the lesbian lovers defied social and gender stereotypes. They were already lovers when Cahun’s father married Moore’s mother, making them officially step-sisters, when they launched one of their most famous photographic projects. In this theatrical series, Cahun performed for the camera and adopted roles that challenged the gender status quo; they were later integrated in lithographic from as illustrations for Cahun's Surrealist autobiography.
Pablo Picasso, Portrait de femme, 1938. Photo © Centre Pompidou. Grand. Palais / Georges Meguerditchian
This exhibition casts a bright light on exchange, dialogue and collaboration like never before. The intriguing stories unraveled before us transport the viewer through time, through love and through art. An intricate exploration of these artistic relationships –platonic, obsessive, romantic, fleeting, conventional – shows how the individual shaped the collective. We see how these couples came together to transgress boundaries, redefine gender stereotypes and forge new ways of living and loving. We see how together they revolutionized the course of art history.
Some couples will remain forgotten, some will see fame for the first time. But then again, that's not the point. It's not a who's who of the Modernist canon, but a plea to us all to accept and celebrate the reality that creative genius can be shared. This unconventional approach is timely, revelatory and supremely engaging. There’s an overwhelming amount of material on display, and the format becomes somewhat repetitive around couple 25, but this comprehensive exhibition merits time and patience, and a whole lot of praise.
|What||Review: Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-garde, Barbican|
|Where||Barbican Centre, Silk Street, London, EC2Y 8DS | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Barbican (underground)|
10 Oct 18 – 27 Jan 19, 10:00 AM – 6:00 PM
|Website||Click here for more information|