LONDON – As you enter the current Modern Couples exhibition at the Barbican Gallery in London, you are greeted by busts of Auguste Rodin and Camille Claudel, which gaze across at each from either side of the room. The two sculptors, who had a ten-year-long affair, immortalized one another in art, Auguste brooding in his bearded terracotta portrait, and Camille plaintively tilting her white plaster head. The exhibition sets out to demonstrate the mutual influence between artistic couplings, showing that a modern approach to art was often accompanied by a modern approach to love and, in the words of the wall text, “present an account in which it is no longer possible to see avant-garde developments in art as purely the result of solo genius” (read: solo male genius). Altogether, it is a timely and laudable endeavor.
The exhibition includes artist-couples of every flavor: same-sex, polyamorous, gender-fluid, interracial, semi-incestuous, faithful, adulterous, life-long, fleeting, collaborative, competitive, open, jealous, loving, and perhaps overly intense, or abusive. (A poem addressed to Marcel Duchamp by his mistress of eight years, Maria Martins, reads: “Long after my death/Long after your death/I want to torture you.” Wow.)
Some of the pairs are well-known enough to have earned themselves biopics: Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Man Ray and Lee Miller, Georgia O’Keefe and Alfred Stieglitz. Others, like Gabriele Münter and Marianne von Werefkin, erstwhile lovers to Kandinsky and Jawlensky, are new and welcome revelations. Strangely, Tamara de Lempicka, with her painting “Les deux amies,” is the exhibition’s only singleton, despite her actually very exciting love life, which included an affair with the nightclub singer Suzy Solidor — the subject of at least one of her paintings.
As well as feeding our natural prurience, the exhibition showcases some fantastic works. Jean Arp’s “Tänzerin (Danseuse)” (1925) and Sophie Taeuber-Arp’s “Triptyque” (1918), with their dusky colors and abstracted shapes, make a beautiful pairing. Lavinia Schultz’s absurd, alien-like stage costumes painted in bold primary colors are utterly singular, as are Minya Diez-Dührkoop’s photographs of them. Then there are Unica and Hans Bellmer’s unnerving photographs, in one of which — “Tenir au frais” (1958) — Zürn is curled into a ball and her flesh lacerated by tightly bound string, rendering her like a supermarket chicken. Another highlight is the photographs of the PaJaMa collective — a modern “thruple,” if you will — made up of the artist-trio Paul Cadmus, Jared French, and Margaret Hoening French. Their simple but stylised photographs of partially nude people on East Coast beaches are elegant and gently comic.
Sadly, though, the exhibition’s greatest virtue — its prodigious ambitiousness — is also its greatest downfall. The vast survey of twentieth-century love and art, which covers a staggering 46 couples, strives for comprehensiveness. This is emphasized by the exhibition leaflet, which contains an encyclopedia of terms, ranging from “love” to “non-binary.” Indeed, much of the experience is textual. By my calculations, if a visitor were to read all of the text in the exhibition, they would be reading approximately 20,000 words — equivalent to a short novella. And that’s not even including the many archival materials — letters, books, poems, exhibition catalogues, envelopes, maps — which are on show, in fairly un-modern display cases. Exhaustiveness is exhausting. And going to this exhibition feels a bit like being Bill Murray in a remake of Groundhog Day called Valentine’s Day, with paintings instead of groundhogs, and no end in sight.
Because of the sheer volume of works and words, the art objects end up becoming secondary to the stories, mere documents of their makers’ liaisons. This feels particularly wrong in an exhibition about “avant-garde” artists — those at the cutting-edge of artistic experimentation, who were flirting with surrealism, conceptualism, and abstraction, as much as with each other. Picasso’s “Portrait of a Woman” (1938) isn’t interesting because it’s of Dora Maar, it’s interesting because of the artist’s riotous use of color and form, and because the figure’s hands look like messily-painted flowers and her left ear resembles a light blue infinity sign. Maar’s Surrealist photographs, in turn, are far from autobiographical: “Père Ubu” (1936) is of a baby armadillo, cast as the dictatorial protagonist in Alfred Jarry’s absurdist play Ubu Roi. Maar’s “Le Simulateur” (1936) is a vertiginous vision of young boy bending backward in a curving Gothic chamber.
The Barbican Gallery’s last major group exhibition, Another Kind of Life, fell into a similar trap. The sprawling show bizarrely brought together photographs of 1970s British dandies, Chilean transgender sex workers, and American neo-Nazi hermits, on the basis that they were all groups “on the margins” of society. Despite the curators’ honorable intentions to showcase bypassed, overshadowed, or marginalized artists and their subjects, these exhibitions leave little room for depth or nuance. One yearns for a deep and sustained examination of an underrepresented artist, with an emphasis on their actual art. Bring on the Lee Krasner retrospective!
Modern Couples continues at the Barbican Gallery (Silk St, London EC2Y 8DS, UK) until January 27, 2019. The exhibition is curated by Jane Alison.