Sunday, 2 December 2018

Modern Couples at the Barbican

I loved this show. It starts with the couple, then checks their sex life, then their biography, and finally the art. The viewer is primed, as it were, with the relevant details, in other words, before addressing the art.

Mercifully, this wacky approach works very well. Perhaps because, as Waldemar Januszczak points out in his Guardian review, this exhibition is non-judgmental, the viewer is left free to judge by the art (if they wish) and/or by their attitude to the couple.

It is an approach which is surprisingly fruitful. From the first room, there is a quotation by Rodin: “Desire! Desire! What a fruitful stimulant!”. In the crazy world of contemporary art, it’s perhaps valuable to remember that desire can indeed create some great art.

I was surprised, for example, to discover Gustave Klimt’s closeness to Emilie Flöge, co-founder of one of the most successful Viennese art-nouveau workshops, the Schwester Flöge. There is no question this group was responsible for exquisite textiles, dress designs, and objects, and no question either that many of Klimt’s rich designs must have originated in this atmosphere of detailed, colourful patterns – a very good example of a mutual benefit.

The exhibition tone is quite clever. There is no doubt that some couple relationships are praised as being beneficial and productive. Aalvo and Ainar Alto, or Robert and Sonia Delaunay, are presented as benefitting each other. Other relationships, such as Hannah Höch and Raoul Hausmann, are perceived as unequal for the woman, and she leaves.

The exhibition does not attempt to cover the vexed question of (typically) males gaining the credit for their partner’s creativity. Instead, it concentrates on examples where the relationship was beneficial and how it benefitted either or both of the partners. More than that, it makes clear that creativity is a far less individual phenomenon than we are brought up to believe.

Take Picasso and Dora Maar, for example. Normally we would see Picasso models, and even partners, as no more than incidental to his life story. Here we learn that she was a photographer, and that she claimed all his portraits of her except one were “lies”. There is one magnificent portrait of her (or based on her) in the exhibition, and to my mind that would make up for all the other lies, if indeed they are.

Mercifully also, the exhibition allows the viewer to judge the art. There is a lot of very inferior art in this show, such as Lorca’s doodles with his pen in his letters to Salvador Dali (although Lorca is not remembered for his art). Several items from the Omega Group, notably by Duncan Grant, are also very poor. And, as seems to happen nowadays, Virginia Woolf is included without having created anything visual (although she may have been indirectly responsible for some of the Hogarth Press book covers, but these are not of any great quality either).

What is magnificent about the show is the juxtaposition of works by artists who are grouped together as couples, and to see similarities. For example, there is a remarkable room devoted to two couples, Kandinsky (above) and Gabriele Munter (below), Alexej von Jawlensky and Marianne von Werefkin, containing works of very similar bright primary colours, and none of them out of place with the others – an impressive level of quality.

Similarly, the show is non-judgemental about artists who leave their partner, and even reappear in the show with another partner, for example Ben Nicholson, who appears both with Winifred Nicholson and then with Barbara Hepworth.

Here, as elsewhere in the show, there are touching personal reminiscences on display; in this case, a sweet and rather sad home video (or its 8mm equivalent) showing Winifred feeding one of her two children, and alongside it is a large painting of them. Without any further comment, Ben Nicholson then appears in the next bay with Barbara Hepworth. There may have been, there most likely was, a lot of personal tragedy here, that the exhibition leaves without comment.

The idea of such an exhibition is not entirely new. On sale in the shop is a book from 1993, Significant Others, a series of essays about artistic couples, including many of the same figures (and even some of the same images): Rodin and Camille Claudel, Sonia and Robert Delaunay, and Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. But who cares, if the art is often so good, and the partnership in so many cases was productive?

All in all, a show that reveals much more about love and creativity than the Louvre Lens Amour show, and a lot more genuine creative influence than the recent Fitzwilliam Virginia Woolf: an exhibition inspired by her Writings. Here, the evidence of creative partnership is visible in most of the pairings. 

Incidentally, the attendees of this exhibition were quite a design item themselves – many of them, as it happens, couples, and many of them dressed with great attention to detail. It seems like in London you dress up to go to an art exhibition, unlike in Cambridge. Very appropriate for this show.

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