PaJaMa, “Margaret French, George Tooker and Jared French, Nantucket” (c. 1946), collection Jack Shear (image courtesy of Gitterman Gallery, New York)

LONDON — When Lee Miller broke off her three-year relationship with Man Ray in 1932, Man Ray reacted by making a series of sadistic, voodoo-like works. “Indestructible Object” (1933), for instance, featured a sultry black-and-white close-up photograph of Miller’s eye stuck to the top of a metronome’s pendulum. On its first showing, Man Ray invited the public to smash it with a hammer.

The Miller and Man Ray relationship is just one example of the 40 relationships included in the Barbican Centre’s rich, sometimes sprawling exhibition Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy, and the avant-garde, which explores how creative couples — whether romantic, platonic, unconventional, life-long, or fleeting — reshaped modern art and redefined ideas of gender and love in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Federico García Lorca and Salvador Dalí in Cadaqués, 1927 (courtesy of Foundation García Lorca)

Camille Claudel and Auguste Rodin, who were together for 10 years, beginning in 1882, are the first relationship to be featured. Claudel was Rodin’s pupil before she became his lover and muse; desire was at the center of their work. Delicate clay maquettes of entwined bodies — made by both artists side-by-side in their studio — went on to inspire Rodin’s “The Kiss.” In between the maquettes are some revealing letters about their relationship. In one, from 1886, Rodin addresses Claudel as “My savage sweetheart.” In another, dated four years later, Claudel signs off a letter to Rodin with “All my love, Camille. Please don’t be unfaithful to me anymore.” Watching over this display case are two busts of the artists: In Rodin’s modest sculpture “Mask of Camille Claudel” (c. 1989), made from white plaster, Claudel’s hair is scraped back and tied in tight braids above her ears. Her head is slightly tilted and her eyes look away from the viewer. Rodin has left in the join lines from the casting process on her face, perhaps demonstrating her potential to shatter, or his role as god-like creator. Claudel’s red plaster “Portrait of Rodin” (1888–9) is bigger, though no less intimate. Beyond the chiselled cheekbones, outlined by a rough beard, you can see wrinkles across his forehead and beneath his eyes.

Dora Maar, “Picasso en Minotaure, Mougins” (1937), Paris, Centre Pompidou – Musée national d’art modern – Centre de creation industrielle (© ADAGP, Paris Photo © Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Philippe Migeat)

Another erotic dialogue — between the Brazilian artist Maria Martins and Marcel Duchamp, whose affair lasted from 1943 until Martins returned to Brazil with her husband in 1951 — is in the same room. Duchamp’s striking bronze and plaster casts of Martins’s body look like ergonomic, hand-sized stress toys. For example, “Not a Shoe” (1950), which is an imprint of Martins’s anus, is a small, bulbous boot-shape. “The Wedge of Chastity” (1954), a negative of her vagina, is a concave shape nestled into flesh-coloured dental plastic. (Duchamp later gave it as a wedding present to his wife, Alexina Matisse.) Martins’s bronze sculpture “Le Couple” (1944), meanwhile, depicts a man and woman enveloped in plant-like tendrils sprouting from their arms and the ground. Their hips are pulling away from each other, but their arms are locked in an embrace. From one angle, the whole sculpture takes the form of female genitals.

Other highlights in the show include Oskar Kokoschka’s tragic obsession with Alma Mahler, who was “one of the most charismatic and dazzling figures of European artistic and cultural life”, the curator’s write in the accompanying catalogue. After the death of her first husband, composer Gustav Mahler, in 1911, Alma had several partners, including Kokoschka. “Never before had I savoured such convulsion, such hell, such paradise,” she said of their three-year relationship (quoted in the catalogue). Increasingly intolerant to Kokoschka’s consuming passion and jealousy, she reconnected with her former lover, architect Walter Gropius. Kokoschka was bereft; he sent Alma seven paper fans (three are on display here), which he covered with exquisite watercolor illustrations. In the corner of one, he paints himself as a knight on a horse, spearing through the chest of a beast standing behind Alma, who is depicted as a medieval maiden cradling a similar beast in her arms. Kokoschka also commissioned a life-sized version of Alma, with skin made from fur, by the Viennese doll-maker Hermine Moos. A few of Kokoschka’s black-and-white photographs, displayed on the wall, picture this doll in strange portrait set-ups, such as reclining naked on a sofa, like Titian’s “Venus of Urbino.”

Auguste Rodin, “Mask of Camille Claudel” (1889) (image courtesy Musée Rodin, Paris)

Not all relationships were so tragic. Within a room based on André Breton’s Surrealist manifesto Mad Love (1937), there is the intriguing, politically charged artwork by Jindřich Štyrský and Toyen, who spent their lives collaborating and exhibiting together. They founded the Czech Surrealist Group in 1934, which challenged aesthetic and moral constraints, and subverted gender expectations (Toyen, born Maria Cerminova, chose her pseudonym from the French word “citoyen”). One stand-out charcoal and pencil drawing by Štyrský from 1940 features two serpents morphing from a pair of human breasts (it is unclear whether they are men’s or women’s). For his collage portrait “The Travelling Cabinet” (1934), the face is made from an image of a red boxing glove, which is shrouded in black, chin-length hair. Toyen’s delicate watercolour illustration, “Young Girl who Dreams” (1930), portrays a woman asleep on a sofa, naked apart from an unbuttoned blue cardigan. Inside the comic-strip-style thought bubbles encircling her head are penises.

Around the same time in America, Paul Cadmus, Jared French, and Margaret French formed the artistic collective PaJaMa. All three met at the Art Students League of New York. Paul and Jared were lovers; after Jared married Margaret, he continued his sexual relationship with Paul. A few of their co-authored black-and-white photographs are on view, many of which stage arresting, sometimes homoerotic beach scenes. (These photos were originally circulated among friends, and were only made public in the 1980s.) In one, three mostly naked men are arranged in a triangle around a wooden cruciform sculpture. Two of the men twist their bodies away from the cross, whereas one, wearing a yarmulke with a triangular pattern, lies on his stomach, staring intensely at it. Though the caption tells us that the image was taken in Provincetown in 1947, it transcends any sense of time and place.

PaJaMa George Platt Lynes, Stoneblossom, c. 1941 Collection Jack Shear

Throughout the exhibition, the curators foreground women. Dora Maar looked to Pablo Picasso as a muse, for instance, just as much as he looked to her. In their shared room, her powerful, experimental photos dwarf his work. Several intriguing photos by Maar show Picasso wearing swimming trunks on a beach in the south of France in the late 1930s, his face often obscured by driftwood sculptures or animal skulls. It turns out, too, that Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s iconic Barcelona Chair was a joint creation in 1929 with his design partner, Lilly Reich. A wall text quotes him as saying of Reich, “Her intellect was like a beacon, which lit up my emotional chaos. She taught me to think.” A shame, then, that the wall caption next to the chair on display contains his name alone. 

The show’s vast scale is both its strength and weakness: over 80 people working in various media and genres of art are represented — Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore, Emilie Flöge and Gustav Klimt, Sonia Delaunay and Robert Delaunay, Eileen Gray and Jean Badovici, among them — which means that some appearances are cursory. Its overall message about collaboration, though, is important. As Federico García Lorca put it in “Ode to Salvador Dalí” (1928):

But above all I sing a common thought

that joins us in the dark and golden hours.

The light that blinds our eyes is not art.

Rather it is love, friendship, crossed swords.

Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy, and the Avant-garde continues at the Barbican Centre (Silk Street, London, UK) through January 27, 2019.

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Mika Ross-Southall

Mika Ross-Southall is a writer and artist based in London. She writes on art, architecture, fashion and books for various publications, including the Times Literary Supplement, the Spectator and the Financial...