Barbican’s ‘Modern Couples’ brings female artists out from their partners’ shadows

Zoe Whitfield

Zoe Whitfield talks to the curators of the exhibition about its feminist power

15 October 2018 13:58

There’s something tired about even remotely referencing Harvey Weinstein at this point, yet it’s a consequence of last year’s fallout, and the subsequent shifts in today’s cultural and social landscape, that certain takeaways from Modern Couples – the new exhibition at Barbican championing the women in artistic partnerships from the first half of the 20th century – have changed.

Initiated three and a half years ago by co-curators Emma Lavigne and Jane Alison (of Centre Pompidou-Metz and Barbican respectively) – when Aziz Ansari’s stand-up was still informed by Modern Romance and before Love Island was a cause of concern for Women’s Aid – the research that followed culminates now in Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-garde, the British leg of ‘two slightly different shows with the same ethos at the core’ (the French version, sans strapline, debuted in the spring and concluded in August).

‘In London we’re much more interested in showing different kinds of relationships,’ assistant curator Coralie Malissard tells me. ‘They were more about artistic practice, where we were thinking really about modern art and modern love – love is at the core of this, so, [looking at] how, a century ago, there were these questions of gender fluidity, triadic relationships, ménage à trois. These amazing lesbian and bisexual artists and writers who were trying to find these rooms of their own – all this stuff that felt really quite topical and inspiring.’

The title’s strapline was a crucial addition she continues, offering careful descriptions behind each word’s choosing. ‘It’s about what it means to be a couple, and how intimacy and sexuality were intertwined with creativity, and how they were both platforms for experimentation,’ Malissard says – as opposed to being a showcase for images of artist couples. ‘A lot of couples in the show were thinking about pushing the boundaries of eroticism and using it as a political tool, or creating their own little haven,’ she clarifies.

Comprised of 23 rooms exploring over 40 artistic couples, space is dedicated to Frida and Diego, likewise O’Keefe and Stieglitz; a portrait of Lili Elbe, whose transition inspired 2016’s The Danish Girl (Tom Hooper), by her partner Gerda Wegener is also displayed, while Virginia Woolf’s writing occupies a key strain of the show: Room 3 providing a nod to A Room of One’s Own (1929), titled ‘Chloe liked Olivia’. Elsewhere Surrealism’s complicated relationship with women is given an arena under the banner ‘Mad Love’ – here partnerships between Eileen Agar and Joseph Bard, and Agar and Paul Nash, Gala and Salvador Dali, Unica Zürn and Hans Bellme are considered.

‘Throughout the exhibition we have led with the woman in the couple,’ Alison proudly notes of the show’s onus, ‘I’m not sure that this has ever been done before in an exhibition.’ Executed by a team of female curators and marterialising as part of The Art of Change season at Barbican, the acknowledgement is a welcome rebuff of art’s traditional narrative.

‘I think it’s impossible to be completely neutral when you curate something like this,’ observes Malissard of the gaze exerted. ‘Definitely the show really was part of this broader thinking that’s in the air at the moment, of showcasing amazing talents that have been overshadowed in the past,’ she says, referencing the feminist undertone that was prevalent when making the show. Elsewhere she notes keenly that many of the artists featured were already privy to a level of fame greater than their partners. ‘It was more shaking our preconceptions around this period – we’re showing a more nuanced portrayal – but we’re not trying to rewrite complete art history. These women were just incredible artists.’

‘It’s about what is it to be a couple, and how intimacy and sexuality were intertwined with creativity.’

A kind of antidote to Björn Runge’s recent big screen picture The Wife – based on Meg Wolitzer’s novel of the same name – in which a man is about to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature based on writing conceived by his wife, the exhibition certainly succeeds at highlighting the trajectory of the women in the couples presented, and for all intents and purposes this is a big positive. Arriving however, within a cultural dialogue in which the power balance between the sexes is a daily theme (in the press, on our timelines, in IRL conversation), it’s difficult not to be consumed by the many sad conclusions spelled out in the show.

Camille Claudel signs off a letter to Auguste Rodin in 1890 with ‘Please don’t be unfaithful to me anymore’ (she was later incarcerated by her family having suffered from poor mental health, not untouched by the pair’s relationship, and died following 30 years in solitary exile); Nancy Cunard, whose interracial relationship with Henry Crowder is celebrated, died destitute, her contributions to Modernism largely untold; photographer Dora Maar’s discipline was belittled by her lover Pablo Picasso, while his leaving her for the younger Francoise Gilot claimed several years of hurt; Unica Zürn died by suicide, a result of her turbulent relationship with Hans Bellme.

Then there’s Indestructible Object by Man Ray featuring the eye of Lee Miller, which he originally intended for viewers to destroy with a hammer; Gustav Mahler persuading Alma Mahler to give up her own musical career to devote herself to his, and her later partner Oskar Kokoschka pleading, ‘I must have you for my wife or my genius will self-destruct’ (he later had made a curious life-size doll, his ‘second Alma’).

Within a cultural dialogue in which the power balance between the sexes is a daily theme, it’s difficult not to be consumed by the many sad conclusions spelled out in the show.

Of course, none of this undermines the intent of the exhibition – indeed the men’s own fates are left out almost completely, apart from Walter Holdt who was killed by Lavinia Schulz, before she took her own life (the rest presumably we know about as history has afforded them a footnote) – nor does it shout victim, more so it is an awful reality that is hard to separate.

‘A lot of these women are incredibly strong characters,’ concurs Malissard, ‘questioning the ideas of gender in ways that are complex and multi-layered, which is my understanding of feminism as well. They didn’t necessarily say that to be part of an ism, they were just trying to live their lives and sexuality fully and be creatives with a capital C. I think that’s feminist in its own right.’ The role of women as cultural incubators was another major preoccupation for the assistant curator: Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press for example, was the first publishing house to translate Freud into English, and notably put it out during a time of extreme book censorship.

Being hugely multi-disciplinary (ceramics feature beside photographs, beside books, beside music, beside costumes) and featuring such a range of stories, for Malissard one of the biggest surprises of the show was actually quite contemporary. ‘Seeing how a lot of these couples were so aware of the importance of themselves as a unit, so wary of their image, their branding – before social media and selfies – you can see it when you come in the rose gallery of people’s portraits,’ she says. ‘And then I’d say a real discovery for me was PaJaMa, the triadic couple, if you can say that? Three American artists who were mostly based in Fire Island, a safe haven for the LGBT community.’

While curiosity means the art in Modern Couples is often a background to the couples themselves, there is a lot to take in visually, including several works never exhibited before in the UK: Paul Cadmas, Jared French and Margaret French (PaJaMa)’s is amongst those debuting, and amongst some of the most compelling. ‘They made the most beautiful surrealist, magical-realist tableaux where posing nude in these dunes,’ Malissard offers. ‘I think people will really like them. The show really has something for everyone, there’s a lot of different aesthetics and that was key – to include artists that aren’t necessarily part of the canon. These are artists that are really about a different aesthetic and who are just as radical in their own language.’