A New Exhibition Showcases the Most Legendary Couples in Modern Art History. Too Bad It Doesn’t Tell the Whole Story
A curatorial tour de force now in London is undermined by the way it plays down uncomfortable truths raised by the #MeToo movement.
Few things capture the imagination of art history more than a talented couple. Lee Miller and Man Ray, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Sonia and Robert Delaunay—the pairs all conjure up images of lovers setting alight art movements between creative outbursts and erotic trysts.
There’s certainly plenty of that fantasy in “Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy, and the Avant-Garde,” an exhibition that opened this week at London’s Barbican following its debut at the Centre Pompidou-Metz in France. The show aims to challenge the traditional idea of the male genius and his muse. The curators show how female artists were equally engaged and influential, sometimes even turning their male partners into muses themselves.
The exhibition is a curatorial tour de force. It features more than 600 objects, including paintings, sculpture, photographs, books, and letters by 40 couples active during the first half of the 20th century. Artistic couples include Camille Claudel and Auguste Rodin, Dora Maar and Pablo Picasso, Emilie Flöge and Gustav Klimt, Hans Arp and Sophie Taeuber-Arp. The list is extensive and talented: in addition to famous, white heterosexual couples, the show embraces lesser-known queer, transgender, and biracial relationships, not to mention a few polyamorous arrangements.
This accurate exploration of modern love in modern times feels like a breath of fresh air. At the same time, however, the inclusion of such a huge number of artists unavoidably means that some have received very little depth in their treatment. For example, the fascinating couple formed by the female Danish illustrator Gerda Wegener and the trans woman artist Lili Elbe (of The Danish Girl fame) is only represented by one portrait of Elbe by Wegener.
The show vividly conveys the creative collaboration that comes out of passionate love, which can yield some impressive gems, like the painting La Rencontre (1939), which Leonora Carrington painted in collaboration with Max Ernst, or her shamanic portrait of Ernst as Bird Superior (1939), a haunting parting gift.
Another captivating series of photographs document Miller and Ray at work together: She poses like an animate Greek sculpture, Ray capturing her beauty in full portraits or fragmented shots of her neck. But most surprising is a series of never-seen-before photographs by Miller of a nude model playing in her studio, which foreshadow those of Francesca Woodman in the 1970s.
There are plenty more examples of couples and triads that managed (mostly) to bring out the best in each other, both personally and professionally, such as the Surrealists Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore or the writer Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West (who inspired Woolf’s novel Orlando).
There are, however, some sections in the show that are problematic. “Modern Couples” slips into rose-tinted romanticism that neglects to investigate properly the emotional abuse or power imbalances that plagued some of these pairings. It is a missed opportunity, all the more surprising considering the exhibition opens against the backdrop of the #MeToo movement.
Claudel and Rodin, for example, had a decade-long tumultuous relationship that started when she began working in his workshop. She was 20; he was more than twice her age. The older sculptor was as consumed and inspired by Claudel as she was by him, but the relationship ended when she decided to emancipate herself professionally and personally from Rodin, who never left his lifelong companion and former muse, Rose Beuret.
Claudel, whose art was as radical as Rodin’s, soon began to struggle economically and her mental health declined rapidly. But the exhibition label merely states that Claudel spent the last years of her life in an asylum, where her family had confined her. The exhibition downplays the fact that Rodin signed a lot of her works when she was in his studio. It also glosses over the way that, during her illness, she felt persecuted by Rodin, which prompted her to destroy most of her works and refuse to make more for fear of her former lover stealing her ideas.
The room devoted to Alma Mahler and her relationships with the composer Gustav Mahler and the painter Oskar Kokoschka is equally problematic. When she broke free from the demanding Kokoschka, he commissioned a disturbing life-size replica of her. The grotesque doll was made of swanskin, feathers and all, and filled with sawdust.
Intended as surrogate for the real woman who left—one that was conveniently passive and submissive—the doll had breasts, a rounded belly, and every other female attribute. The doll is included in the show, but the accompanying label seems to find this creepy act of replacement somehow romantic. The text says the doll was destroyed “among much ribaldry.” In actuality, Kokoschka decapitated it after a party. Such a violent act performed on the symbolic representation of Alma Mahler deserves to be taken seriously, and told in full, especially in an exhibition about relationships.
Similarly, Picasso and Dora Maar’s relationship was creative, tormented, and ultimately unhappy. A talented Surrealist photographer, Maar ended her life as a recluse. Picasso taunted her during and after their relationship and she ended up giving up photography, a medium Picasso belittled.
When I asked Jane Alison, the Barbican’s head of visual arts who is one of the exhibition’s co-curators, about the sanitized stance toward these relationships, she told me that “the starting point was the art. We chose Dora Maar and Picasso, for example, because we thought she had a huge influence on him and she was a fantastic photographer in her own right. We have tried to be very open and direct about troubled relationships without sensationalizing them in any way.” She admits that not every artistic relationship was enabling and supportive. “Of course that wasn’t always the case, but that doesn’t mean we were not going to include them,” she said.
It is certainly true that the power struggles, emotional abuses, and competitiveness that fueled some of these relationships don’t make them any less real, or the art produced out of them less compelling. Rather, it’s the show’s glossing over of the uglier facts that risks undermining its much-needed feminist angle.
If there’s a lesson we should have learned by now, after a year of disturbing revelations and #MeToo activism, it is that even the most legendary artists are no more than human beings and can thus be terribly flawed. As curators and critics, though, it is our responsibility to make sure that kind of conduct is openly addressed to avoid it being condoned or trivialized.
“Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy, and the Avant-Garde” is on view at the Barbican Centre in London until January 27, 2019.
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